About this Recording
8.557826 - TAVENER: Lament for Jerusalem
English  German 

John Tavener (b. 1945)
Lament for Jerusalem

Sir John Tavener describes the Lament for Jerusalem as a mystical love song. The Lament brings together Christian, Judaic, and Islamic texts and is sung in Greek and English. The musical structure is that of a lattice whose proportions are carefully designed so that the listener is invited to focus on key points of the text which are themselves supported by transcendental melodic, harmonic, and textural devices. The simplicity of the work’s form and its logical progression through a series of seven linked, self-referential tableaux allow the Lament to grow in power and beauty during its course. The American composer Steve Reich has described some of his own music as purveying ‘a kind of dynamic stasis’ and that aptly sums up the effect of Tavener’s Lament for Jerusalem. The Lament is rooted in grim tradition, yet it looks longingly into the future to a time when beatific vision is restored, and, as in much of the very greatest art, form and content are inseparable.

The shape of each Cycle is the same: the choir sings a passage from Psalm 137, ‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion’, culminating in an ecstatic Alleluia; an instrumental (Cosmic) Lament; a section sung by the countertenor to segments of the prologue of the epic work Masnavi by the thirteenth-century Islamic spiritual master Jalaluddin Rumi; a further passage from Psalm 137 sung by the soprano leading to a quiet threefold Orthodox Alleluia; finally, a heart-rending statement by the choir of Christ’s lament over Jerusalem (from Chapter 23 of St Matthew’s Gospel). The work’s mosaic structure is punctuated by growling bulges of varying duration, texture, and dynamic provided by the lowest strings after each of the choir’s psalm-verses, after each of the countertenor’s Sufi verses, and after each of the choir’s Christic Laments: these represent the worldweary sighs and groans of the city of Jerusalem.

On the face of it, the Lament for Jerusalem is repetitive. Only one bar, however, the nostalgic tripartite statement of the words of Christ ‘He wept over her’, is repeated musically verbatim. Certainly the work is based on remarkably few melodic, harmonic, and textural elements, but these elements are crystallised, expanded, altered, and developed in subtle but perceptible ways throughout the piece. Indeed it is Tavener’s superlatively delicate treatment of his musical material that affords the work such emotional momentum. The constant fluctuation of mode within a firmly tonal background, the rhythmic instability couched within carefully-controlled metre, and the culturally kaleidoscopic instrumentation create a musical alloy whose chemistry is difficult to determine at close quarters yet which from a distance reveals a work whose whole is incomparably greater than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Lament is the way in which the grandeur and majesty of the larger gestures highlight the importance of the smaller (and ultimately more universal) motifs. For all the heartfelt renditions of the choir’s Laments, growing as they do in length and volume throughout the piece, the quiet trio at the conclusion of those sections (set to the text of Luke 19, v41) expresses the emotional kernel. Similarly, for all the melismatic weeping of the soprano in captivity, her reflective final Alleluias provide the focus of her distress, and the transparently orchestrated Cosmic Laments with their constantly changing chromatic inflections and variations of echoes and pre-echoes, are hauntingly devoid of consolation.

Lament for Jerusalem is a testament to John Tavener’s craft and to his deep-rooted spirituality, the admixture of which allows the Lament to function simultaneously as a mundane cri de coeur and as heavenly panacea. The piece is, as the composer reminds us, a love poem, and its function is to move the listener both by its simplicity and by its complex interweaving of Christian, Judaic, and Islamic tradition. In Tavener’s own words: ‘Perhaps the tiniest particle of Hal, the Arabic word for divine love, might touch a single soul, or better three souls’.

Jeremy Summerly


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