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Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, November 2009

An organ pedal point, a spooky unison modal line—we’re off to a good start with ‘Verbum Caro Factum Est’, which opens John Tavener’s Ex Maria Virgine. Then the line blossoms into four gorgeous chords at the end on the words “Ex Maria”. ‘Nowell Nowell! Out of Your sleep’ alternates between loud choir praisings with organ flourishes and unaccompanied choir chords with individual syllables pulsed like a Michael Torke or Steve Reich piece. ‘Remember O Thou Man’ is a circling admonishing movement; a few jubilant outbursts always lead back to the “Remember” part. The writing is varied and interesting, with the organ adding some variety, especially the brilliant trilling in ‘Sweet Was the Song’. ‘Ave Rex Angelorum’ has some ferocious, declamatory chanting and sustained, beautiful lines. This piece sounds made for this choir; it is virtuosic and fascinating to listen to.

The rest of the program consists of six settings of miscellaneous Advent texts…’A Nativity’, for women’s voices, is the most creative of them; Tavener holds notes of the melody over with some of the voices to create beautiful, unsettling chords that hang in the air for longer than reverberation would allow, and with more clarity as well. ‘O Thou Gentle Light’ is a setting of a Greek text written sometime before the 4th Century. The Choir sings in English, with lush but deliberate chords; and a solo baritone, Stefan Berkieta, sings the Greek words at the phrase ends; it’s quite effective. ‘Angels’, the final track, is filled with spaces to contemplate between the phrases…The recorded sound is excellent—the acoustics never smother the singers or muddle the organ.

J.F. Weber
Fanfare, May 2009

Two of the selections are first recordings: Ex Maria virgine, the major work at 38 minutes, and Marienhymne. The other works are not widely available…The composer has a devoted following, so these accomplished performances will delight them.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, April 2009
Tavener has written unaccompanied choral music throughout his career and here are some fine examples of this work—two with an important part for organ. Ex Maria Virgine is a kind of Ceremony of Carols in that it sets both well known and less well known texts concerned with Christmas. It’s a big piece and although there are some stunning moments, it’s at least ten minutes too long for its material. But I welcome it for it is so different to those Orthodox pieces. It seems to have more of a sense of itself as a work of music, than as a work of the Orthodox Church. It’s interesting that within its structure I noticed the undeniable influence of both Elgar and Vaughan Williams in the choral textures. Ex Maria Virgine was commissioned by the performers on this disk and this recording was made some five months before they gave the première. Their committed advocacy is astonishing for this music had neither been tried out in public nor had the performers had the chance to receive feedback from an audience. The rest of the recital is made up of Tavener’s smaller pieces and they show the best of him. There’s a lot of diversity in these miniatures. For the first time in a long time, Tavener has written some bold music, strong and purposeful. The only backward step is O Thou Gentle Light which reverts to the Orthodox sound once again. The best is kept for last: Angels is a tumultuous paean of joyful singing over a tremolando organ accompaniment. Fabulous stuff indeed…The recording has captured the glorious acoustic of Norwich Cathedral superbly, and shows the voices and organ in a lovely perspective within that magnificent building. The booklet contains a good note and full texts of all the works performed., January 2009

Most of the music on the new Tavener CD is for unaccompanied chorus, with two works—Ex Maria Virgine and Marienhymne—being world première recordings. Tavener’s harmonic language is, not surprisingly, very distant indeed from [his Renaissance namesake John]Taverner’s: A Nativity, for example, uses tone clusters to create an atmospheric setting of words by William Butler Yeats. In many ways, it is Tavener’s choice of texts that makes this CD intriguing: O Do Not Move uses words by contemporary Greek poet George Seferis, Birthday Sleep sets lines by modern Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, the words for Marienhymne are by Swiss philosopher-poet Frithjof Schuon, and so on. Much of the music is lovely, often expressing a mysticism that fits modern spiritual quests as closely as orthodox traditionalism fit people’s lives 500 years ago.

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, January 2009

East Anglia meets Eastern music in the master-minimalist's latest release

Tavener has made a huge impact with his sacred choral music with, for example, over 40 recordings of The Lamb.He has universalised the religious convictions of his teacher Lennox Berkeley and, along with Arvo Pärt, has long dominated the market in spiritual minimalism. His passionate conviction is as inspiring as Messiaen's and his choral tactics are sometimes similar. Ex Maria Virgine was written in 2005 to celebrate the wedding of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall and dedicated to them. It is subtitled "A Christmas Sequence" and consists of 10 movements setting a variety of texts with a focus on the Virgin Mary. Many of these are meditative and the whole cycle is framed by a kind of plainsong melody. But at the other extreme there is the ecstatic choral hiccupping of "Nowell, Nowell"; dramatic juxtapositions in "Remember O Thou Man"; and the unabashed theatricality of "Ave Rex Angelorum" going well beyond any Anglican tradition. These outbursts, with vigorous organ participation, place the quieter mystical moments in perspective. Familiar carols like "Ding! Dong! Merrily on high" and "Unto to us is born a Son" get a robust makeover and the cradle song "Little Jesus, sweetly sleep" is rescued from banality by Tavener's individual way of using simple triads. The composer's Byzantine allegiances are reflected in the texts of several of the attractive single pieces that follow.

Clare College Choir is outstanding throughout with a remarkable security of attack and precise intonation in chord sequences that are sometimes repetitive but never obvious. The acoustic in Norwich Cathedral is a real asset and so is this vivid recording. Altogether an exhilarating release.

Andrew Stewart
Classic FM, January 2009

Tavener’s lifelong spiritual development has prompted significant shifts in his music, leaving consistent traces while opening up new creative avenues. The lyricism and tender humanity of his recent works, inspired by the composer’s take on Universalism and its belief in one common god, are ever present in an exceptional new Naxos release. Ex Maria Virgine, a sequence of texts associated with the Virgin Mary, sharply contradicts the lazy line that all Tavener sounds the same: it doesn’t! Compare, for example, his ecstatic setting of ‘Ding! Dong! Merrily on high’ with his ‘Rocking Carol’. An unmissable budget release.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, December 2008

It’s a paradox that Tavener’s Christmas music seems to take longer to seep into the psyche than, say, The Protecting Veil, with its much more immediate appeal.  I see the potential of the music, as I did when King’s first commissioned The Lamb for the Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols—I just hope that it doesn’t take me as long this time to bring the music on board.  When I’ve done so, I’m sure it will be as established a part of the Christmas scene as Britten’s Ceremony of Carols has become.

Tavener has taken a number of texts, both the familiar and the less familiar, and woven them into a sequence not unlike the Britten Ceremony, though with no sense that he is imitating the more established work.  Whereas Britten opens with the plainsong Hodie, Tavener sets the words in a modern idiom from the start, and that idiom, as I have already indicated, is a fairly uncompromising one.  The familiar words from the opening of St John’s gospel in Verbum caro factum est are set in unison but, though the music displays what the excellent notes (by David Truslove) describe as ‘poignant chromaticism’, this is a tough chromaticism and its irregular rhythms indicate that we had better not sit back and wallow in the familiar message.  Tavener’s Word made flesh is more a challenge to the world than a consolation.  Yes, it is ‘serene’, to quote the notes again, but it is an unsettling serenity.

Where earlier composers, including Britten, have either adapted traditional melodies or sought to produce a synthesis between medieval/renaissance evocations on the one hand and a modern idiom on the other—a synthesis which I must admit to cherishing in a familiar piece such as Joubert’s Torches—you won’t find the same blend in Tavener.  You will, however, find rhythmic excitement to more than match Torches in Nowell! Nowell! (track 2)

If there is any trace of the familiar late-medieval tune of Sweet was the song (track 4) or of There is no Rose (track 6) or of the traditional tune in Ding! Dong! Merrily on high (tr.7) I can’t hear it.  Only Rocking (‘We will rock you’, tr.8) seems to me to evoke anything close to the comfortingly familiar—and this soon leads into another powerful and impressive setting of Unto us is born a Son (tr.9)...As I write, Ex Maria Virgine has yet to receive its first complete public performance, scheduled for St John’s College on 12th December, 2008.  I’m sure that it will be the first of many and that it is destined to become part of the Christmas scene.  Even the more powerful sections, such as Unto us is born a Son (tr.9) have their quietly beautiful moments, though the majority of this section is pretty angular.  This multi-lingual work (parts of tr.9 are in Greek and Arabic) ends as it began with Verbum caro (tr.10), this time in a more peaceful form—the serenity that was only partly present at the beginning now asserting itself, though the effect is still rather unsettling.

The other works on the CD, ranging in date from 1985, the first version of Angels (tr.16) to Marienhymne, another 2005 composition, add to the value of this recording.  They also remind us of the wide range of Tavener’s interests, from the Greek Orthodox in O Thou Gentle Light (Phós hilaron, the evening hymn, tr.15, usually translated ‘Hail gladdening light’) to the German Marienhymne (tr.14).  Most of them relate to one of the fixed points in Tavener’s music, his response to what the notes call ‘The Eternal Feminine’ in the form of the Virgin Mary. 

The programme ends appropriately (tr.16) with an assertion of the Byzantine doctrine of the Angels—the same angels who spread the mantle of the Virgin over Constantinople in its hour of need in The Protecting Veil; this music is as thrillingly beautiful as that earlier piece.  The evocation of earlier musical forms, which I found to be largely absent from the sections of Ex Maria Virgine, plays its part here and in the preceding O Thou Gentle Light (tr.15); I certainly hear more than a hint of Orthodox chant in this beautiful music.  Angels rounds off the whole programme in the same mood as that wonderful prayer which Cranmer translated as the closing collect of Anglican Evensong – ‘Lighten our darkness ...’

Angels receives a beautiful performance, wholly worthy of its tone, as do the other works and the various sections of Ex Maria—Timothy Brown, his soloists and his choir are ever alert and sympathetic to the moods of the music.  They have clearly absorbed the idiom more readily than I have—after all, their college commissioned the new work.  If they haven’t yet taken me fully into the heart of this major commission, I’m sure they will—if not this year, then perhaps next.

The notes are very helpful and the texts are already online for anyone who wants them if they’ve downloaded the recording (available in 320k sound from classicsonline and passionato, also from eMusic)…As with all the Naxos CDs of English choral music that I have heard, the recording is wholly worthy of the performances.  Strongly recommended—but you may need to persevere.  It’s well removed from the cosy Christmas of renaissance art or of chestnuts roasting by the fire, though there’s a place for those, too.  If you want the latter, go for another Naxos CD, Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride and Other Holiday Favorites (8.559621).  That Anderson CD is available only in North America, but it’s available to download anywhere.

C Michael Bailey
All About Jazz, December 2008

British composer John Tavener is the big daddy of modern choral composition, save for, perhaps, Arvo Part. Tavener is a deep musical mystic well versed in the Ikons and Kontakions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. A little history for perspective: in the 11th century, two large factions of the Christian church had a difference of opinion resulting in a non-heretical break in the Christian church into the Roman Catholic church, with its headquarters in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church, with its headquarters shared among the Patriarchies of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. It is in the musical tradition of this latter church that John Tavener excels.

Ex Maria Virgine, was commissioned by Timothy Brown in 2005 and the Clare College Choir, Cambridge, who have recorded the selections for the present release. The 10-part piece focuses on the Blessed Virgin, honoring the "Eternal Feminine" as she is honored in Eastern Orthodoxy. Ex Maria Virgine is a difficult piece with flashes of great beauty. Tavener recasts "There is No Rose," "Ding dong Merrily on High" and "Rocking" in jarring fashion. This music is often dissonant and anxious, but relaxes in the final "Verbum Caro."

Tavener's shorter pieces are beautiful. "Birthday Sleep" based on a text by Vernon Watkins, is grand in an ancient style. Tavener soars here. The composer's setting for Yeat's "A Nativity" begins with a darkness that gives way to brightness as the piece unfolds. "O Thou Gentle Light" from the Orthodox liturgy, is the most consonant work and is stunning. Tavener remains, with Ex Maria Virgine the choral composer of note. It is encouraging to realize that music this fine continues to be composed.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2008

Born in England in 1944, John Tavener now holds a place among the great and most profound choral composers of our time.

A deeply religious man, his spirituality infuses his music, the slow and hypnotic nature of his scores creating a rich and rewarding experience. Of his more recent works none will be more readily approachable than the ‘Christmas Sequence’, Ex Maria Virgine. Commissioned in 2005 by the present performers, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, its eight sections use a mix of popular and lesser known texts including Ding! Dong! Merrily on High; Rocking; Sweet was the Song, and opening and closing with Verbum caro. Often very difficult, Tavener shows just how much further the sound of the human voice can be explored while still remaining within the long established traditions of choral singing. The work lasts not far short of forty minutes and would make an ideal half of a choral concert, the organ part moving between pure accompaniment and a more outgoing presence as the texts dictate. This is the premiere recording, its first complete concert performance taking place as part of this year’s Christmas festivities. Whether enjoying the virtuoso moments or in the lyric passages, the singing, under the direction of Timothy Brown, has warmth and beauty of tone. The disc is completed by six shorter pieces, Birthday Sleep; A Nativity; O, Do Not Move; O Though Gentle Light; Angels and the first recording of Marienhymne. All very attractive scores in that ethereal mode we have come to expect from the composer. The sound quality is exceptionally good.

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