Since his death last November, performances of John Tavener’s music have been in no short supply. Sunday night at the Barbican, however, was nothing less than an inundation, as Martyn Brabbins conducted a host of musicians in the world première of Flood of Beauty, a full hour-and-three-quarters of Tavener’s uncompromising brand of sonic spirituality. Setting the 100 verses of the Saundarya Laharī, an extraordinarily lavish poem of praise attributed to 9th century Hindu poet Śankarachācārya, Tavener’s characteristic melodic minimalism contrasted with maximalist forces and time-scale; the Britten Sinfonia was joined by an instrumental soloist, a duo of vocal soloists, a trio of Indian instrumentalists, and two choirs: the Britten Sinfonia Voices and the New London Chamber Choir.

Martyn Brabbins © Sasha Gusov
Martyn Brabbins
© Sasha Gusov

Although this was the work’s first performance, Tavener completed it in 2007; perhaps unsurprisingly, given its scale, concert promoters have been loath to put it on. This reticence might equally be directed towards its substance, however; the poem is nothing if not copious, but the musical excesses certainly made it a hard slog for the listener. The melodic material for all of the five score verses of vivid, visionary, sensual, kaleidoscopic language in praise of Devi, the female power behind the universe, is based on an intervallic line that moves by leaps, rising and falling in vaguely wave-like fashion. Whilst it does vary in its exact melodic make-up, as well as the forces used to sing and accompany it, the nature of the line and the fact that it was predominantly underlain with static chords made the constant repetition not trance-like but turgid: not at all in line with the fantastical brilliance of the poem (projected in translation for the audience’s convenience).

Where the music did match up with the opulence of the words was in its textures, aided by the layout of the performers. As well as the soloists, string players, pianist, organist, timpanist, chamber choir and ever-active gong and prayer-bowl percussionist on stage, there were choral and instrumental groups on either side of the balcony behind the audience, and this use of the space and division of the forces made each shift in texture more noticeable, opening out new dimensions on the all-pervasive intervallic melody. Whilst the soloists – baritone Marcus Farnsworth and soprano Allison Bell – dominated the poem’s recitation at the start, the choirs took over more and more towards the end of the work. Throughout the piece the instrumentation generally got more daring: stabbing muted trumpet passages, timpani scales, back-of-the-hand piano glissandi, clattering bells and even an interpolated Schumannesque passage for string quartet marked the fifth and final ‘cycle’ of verses.

An extended cello solo separated each of these five cycles, and without doubt these meditative passages, played exquisitely by Natalie Clein, provided the highlight of the piece. The slow-moving rhapsodising, beginning in the highest register and gradually descending to the lowest, accompanied throughout only by the strikings of the gong-and-bowl player, provided blissful relief and refreshment from the overwhelming sound of the poem’s setting. Equally reflective were the sitar and tanpura passages that opened and closed the work; Sheema Mukherjee’s sitar solos were deeply evocative, but, despite all three Indian instrument’s amplification, only Kuljit Bahmra’s tabla-playing was not completely flooded by the musical texture. Their inclusion felt little more than a cursory nod towards the music of the poem’s culture of origin: hardly the expression of the Universalism that influenced Tavener’s music of this period.

If Flood of Beauty made for tiring listening, it must have been exhausting to perform, particularly for the singers who had an enormous amount of Sanskrit with which to familiarise themselves. In general, both the choir and the orchestra managed commendably, although there were times when the intonation flagged somewhat. Martyn Brabbins and his two balcony conductors Eamonn Dougan and Aidan Oliver managed to keep things together, bar the occasional messy endings that such an adventurous setup inevitably engenders. Particularly impressive was the way each group held its own in the extended canonic sections of Cycle Four. Allison Bell dominated proceedings with her confident, powerful voice; she seemed totally at ease with the text and her prominent part in reciting it, unlike Marcus Farnsworth, for whom the task seemed a little more daunting (and whose baritone couldn’t project from the texture as Bell’s soprano could).

Flood of Beauty is not amongst Tavener’s finest works; it is a complicated piece to stage, to perform and, not least, to listen to. The poem is a fascinating deluge of radiant adoration, but the music sonically emphasised its flooding rather than its beauteousness. Whilst it deserved the performance given here, it is hard to envisage its extended survival past the current period of celebration of John Tavener’s life, music and philosophy, in the wake of his recent death.

**111