Since John Tavener's passing, there have been several concerts dedicated to the composer's work, and this was not the first to have offered a première of one of his compositions. This concert at the Royal Festival Hall, billed as 'a celebration' of John Tavener, demonstrated the extraordinary depth and breadth of his music, brought to life by the formidable Bach Choir, the Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor David Hill and soloists.

The concert began with the UK première of O where, tell me where?, a setting of three well-known Scottish folk songs, which had earlier this year been given its world première by the Bach Choir in Shanghai. Written for choir and tubular bells, each of the three songs follows the same, uncomplicated pattern: first, we hear the tubular bells play the first part of the tune, then a short improvisatory passage on the bells follows, after which the choir sings the folk song. Tavener composed this work whilst in the Highlands as a homage to the country he had come to love – that he did so was quite obvious, from the eerily evocative bells to the deceptively uncomplicated (the work is scored for 14-part choir) treatment of the songs themselves, which each kept their traditional melodies.

Raphael Wallfisch © Benjamin Ealovega
Raphael Wallfisch
© Benjamin Ealovega

The slightly angular harmonies of the first tune, The Blue Bells of Scotland (whose first line lends Tavener's piece its title), perfectly captured the uncertainty and perhaps misguided optimism of the song's subject, whose "Highland laddie" has gone off to fight and who believes that "true love will be his guide and bring him safe again" ("but oh, my heart would break if my Higland lad be slain"). With a simple canonic device, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose was lifted from simple folk tune to an elaborately dreamy piece supported by a bagpipe-like drone from the lower voices. The final piece of the three was the Skye Boat Song, and here Tavener alternates between major and minor versions of the tune and harmony to narrate Bonnie Prince Charlie's journey. Throughout, the Choir sung with a sensitivity and delicateness that belied the number of singers; diction and expression were very clear indeed, allowing us, the listeners, to appreciate the work as Tavener had intended – as a meditation.

Cellist Raphael Wallfisch was the soloist in Tavener's epic The Protecting Veil, written as a 'lyrical ikon'. Composed in honour of the Orthodox Feast of the Protecting Veil, the eight sections are based on Byzantine chants, and each in turn represents a part of Mary's life: the Annunciation, the Resurrection, the Dormition, to name three. For around 45 minutes, the cellist becomes the unending song of Mary, the string orchestra an extension of that song. That Tavener experienced heartfelt joy in his faith was clear to hear in this glorious music; textures varied from rich, shimmering strings to a haunting solo cello section (The Lament of the Mother of God at the Cross). The Philharmonia Orchestra's and Wallfisch's playing was finely nuanced; there was just one section in which the soloist plays with cellos alone, where the balance was upset by an accompaniment louder than the solo. That said, it was an immersive experience; one felt absorbed into the endless song of Mary, and the composer's intention to bring out something of her 'cosmic' beauty was realised.

Tavener's famous Song for Athene began the second half. An unusual, if not unlikely, combination of texts from the Orthodox funeral service and Shakespeare's Hamlet form the 'verses', which are interspersed with increasingly fervent cries of “Alleluia”. This was really the piece that showed off the Bach Choir's skill en masse, deftly moving from the quiet, plaintive “may flights of angels bring thee to thy rest” to the full-on, radiant final verse.

Continuing the funereal theme , the final piece of the concert was Tavener's Requiem, commissioned to mark Liverpool's becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2008. It is different from other settings, combining texts from the Requiem Mass with Sufi poetry, Hindu chants, and Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and Arabic iterations to promulgate Tavener's view that the perennial truth of all the major religions is that man's glory lies in death, becoming one with God. It is a concept that comes across successfully at times, though not consistently. Tavener intended cruciform performance, something that could not be realised here. Consequently, some sections were troublesome, and the nature of the piece was occasionally lost: the Dies irae was a wall of indistinguishable sound, and elsewhere the soloists (Wallfisch centre-stage on cello, with soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and tenor James Oxley) were hard to hear despite the use of microphones. At one point, conductor David Hill seemed to struggle to rein in the choir as they powered ahead. There were moments of brilliance, all the same: Thomas' purity of sound was a delight, and Oxley's vocal dexterity impressed even at the very top of the range; both vocal soloists handled Tavener's fiendish lines with consummate ease. Tavener's performance directions are rarely a novelty, and I would relish the opportunity to hear the Requiem again, performed cruciform.