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John Tavener' piano works are less well known than his large orchestral, vocal and choral works, yet at times seem to mark his stylistic and spiritual development on a more personal level. Tavener' first piano work, Palin, foreshadows his search for a
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The finest work of Tavener's piano catalogue is the gorgoeus "Ypakoë", a mystical meditation on the Passion and Resurrection that integrates a beautiful chorale-like idea (taken from his motet "As one who hast slept") with the ecstatic sounds of trills and bells.
Van Raat's rushed interpretation of this work, however, is completely lacking in the spaciousness and fervor required for this piece. Tavener's published score lists its duration at about 21 minutes; van Raat takes only about 13.5 minutes, leaping headlong, without poetry, through the work. [It has been pointed out to me, quite correctly, that the liner notes do contain a brief sentence referring to the fact that Tavener supervised these recording sessions and made some changes to the scores. However, whether the tempo choice was Van Raat's or Tavener's, I stand by the musical assertion that it robs one of his most beautiful piano scores of its mystery and beauty.]
For an ideal performance of "Ypakoë," Elena Riu's disc "Piano Icons for the 21st Century" (Linn Records) is the one to buy. The work was written for and premiered by her.
The other major work on the disc is the recent "Pratirupa", a piece which Tavener created in versions both for piano alone and piano with string orchestra. Van Raat's performance of this work is more compelling than his rendition of "Ypakoë", but the piece is not one of Tavener's stronger compositions. It rambles, without partaking of the sublime beauty of his finest works. Furthermore, it is substantially more effective (and colorful) in the version with strings.
The other works on the disc are small pieces of varied character -- appealing in their simplicity, but not reason enough to purchase the disc.
I will look forward to exploring Van Raat's recordings of other repertoire but cannot recommend this disc.
Ypakoë allegedly means "to be obedient", "to hear", "to respond" in Greek. Ypakoë is also a traditional hymn chanted in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. The piece comes across as a keyboard suite consisting of different sections (not cued on the Naxos disc). It opens with a festive preludium, majestic bells pealing, not uncommon in Tavener's music. An understated, attractive 2-part invention follows, emulating a baroque idiom. This mood is extrapolated in the next section, a very simple and sombre chorale melody. No counterpoint involved at all. A short, celebratory peroration soon makes way for the chorale again. We're halfway and the music moves in familiar Tavener territory with another subdued, hymnic theme, accompanied by rapid, ceremonial figurations in the right hand. Maybe this is the sound of the Greek 'kanokaki' where Van Raat refers in his liner notes? The chorale returns again, but only briefly, almost as a motto theme. Textures continue to thin out in a mysterious grave, pppp. A beautiful, nocturnal meditation that gives way to a rousing finale that connects back to the pealing bells of the beginning.
An earlier reviewer chastised Van Raat for playing Ypakoë much too fast. It is indeed the case that the dedicatee of the piece, the Venezuelan pianist Elena Riu recorded a much slower version, taking over 20 minutes, on a Linn Records disc. Van Raat takes just over 13 minutes. However, comparing the two recordings I must say I side with the interpretation of the Dutch pianist. Tavener may wish the music to attune us to the divine will, but in her desire for spiritual communion Riu tries to spin rather too much yarn from little wool. As a result, the music sounds dull and contrived. In Van Raat's hands the piece continues to breathe and its relative briskness lends it a beguiling freshness.
The other piece, Pratirupa, takes almost a full half hour. I suppose one has to be in the right frame of mind to stay focused on what ultimately seems to be relatively modest musical material. It's an extended meditation that revolves around three basic components: a gentle, nocturnal fantasy that forms the backbone of the piece, a lullaby that returns as a motto theme and, finally, a set of periodic eruptions of a Messiaen-like density and ferocity.