This article by Bruce Haughan appeared on on 17 March 2006


A small but enthusiastic audience braved the Arctic conditions that prevailed inside as well as outwith St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral for the final concert of the 2006 International Festival of Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace. It was a memorable occasion of superb choral singing, especially of two new and beautiful works, the Scottish Premiere of Triptych by Tarik O'Regan, and the Scottish launch of the Naxos CD recording of the Jerusalem version of Lament for Jerusalem by John Tavener. The same concert had already been given two days earlier by the same choir, orchestra and soloists in St John's, Smith Square in London; that performance had been the world premiere of Triptych.

The evening opened with a pair of sixteenth-century motets which recalled the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, and which were current political statements in that they also hinted at the plight of Roman Catholic communities in the Protestant England of Queen Elizabeth I. Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) wrote Super Flumina Babylonis for William Byrd (1540-1623) during the former's visit to England in 1554-55. It is not well known to choirs today, but certainly deserves to be. Its rich and elegant style is Venetian (de Monte had spent his formative years in Italy), and the flowing movement of the lower parts of the double choir recalls some of the contemporary Palestrina's early work. Quomodo Cantabimus is William Byrd's response, a glorious work with the occasional dissonances and majestic swell before reaching its quiet conclusion that are found in so much of Byrd's music. The Choir of London gave a superb account of both works, tightly controlled but sensitively passionate. This was English choral singing at its very best.

Tarik O'Regan's splendid Triptych also deserves to join the current choral canon. Scored for choir and small string ensemble, its theme is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the desperate need for peace. O'Regan has set texts from Jewish, Islamic and Christian writers in three movements of which the first, 'Threnody' was written first as a stand-alone commission for the inaugural concert of the Choir of London in 2004. The second and third movements, 'As We Remember Them' and 'From heaven Distilled a Clemency', were written and first performed as another separate commission, this time from Portsmouth Grammar School in 2005, but were planned at the outset to connect eventually with 'Threnody' . The St John's, Smith Square performance and this one represent the World Premiere of this completed work.

It opened with a short quiet introduction by the strings to the choir's opening passage with words from the Quaker founder William Penn, 'When death takes off the mask, we will know one another, though diverse liveries we wear here make us strangers', moving through texts from Muhammad Rajab Al-Bayoumi, William Blake, and Psalm 133. All three movements were linked by expressive passages from the strings. The second was devoted mainly to litanic lines from Roland B Gittelsohn's 'Gates of Repentance' with the recurring response 'As we remember them' to each versicle, the whole poem echoing Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen. Beautifully flowing melodic lines in all parts intertwined with each other, coming to a sudden end, when '… the Heavenly Quire stood mute, and silence was in Heaven' (John Milton) was sung authoritatively as a brief solo by choir soprano Isabelle Adams. The choir began the third movement, presto, 'Each shall arise in the place where their life spirit departs' (Bundahis-Bahman Yast) before giving way to a clarion solo by Isabelle Adams 'Why then should I be afraid? I shall die once again to rise an angel blest' (Jalaluddin Rumi), to which the choir responded with words from Wordsworth, 'Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting …'. A brief solo with words by Thomas Hardy gave a quiet pause before the choir reprised the opening passage of the third movement da capo and brought the work to a triumphant conclusion. The composer was present and able to take a much-deserved and welcomed bow.


This piece could have stood alone as the high point of the evening, but it also set the scene for the main work. John Tavener wrote his Lament for Jerusalem for Ars Musica Australia who first performed it in Sydney Opera House in 2003. He arranged this smaller Jerusalem Version for the Choir of London, who premiered it in London in December 2004 and took it to Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem for a performance with local Jewish and Muslim musicians. This performance and the earlier one in St John's, Smith Square, London have launched the Naxos CD recording (see below) as well concluding the 2006 3rd MESP. Most, if not all, of the Edinburgh audience were hearing the work for the first time.

Tavener's choral work now has a distinctive sound, which he employs to superb effect in this work and which perfectly suits the Choir of London and its resources. Lament for Jerusalem has seven stanzas, each structured the same, but which grow in length and intensity as the work progresses. The chorus, countertenor and soprano soloists, and semi-chorus all sing from different but parallel and complementary texts, some in Greek and some in English, from the Bible and from the prologue of Masnavi by Jalaluddin Rumi. The choir opens each stanza, followed by a short orchestral interlude and then the countertenor and soprano soloists. The choir returns for an increasingly full and climactic passage which uses and reprises the same Biblical text in Greek on the destruction of the prophets by the people of Jerusalem, and the same music; another verse is added in each stanza, which the semi-chorus closes with the repeated phrase Éklafsen ep aftéen (He wept over her)'.

In this performance the chorus, orchestra, soloists and semi-chorus were beautifully balanced. The soloists were particularly well matched, Peter Crawford's soft and mellow countertenor being entirely in keeping with Angharad Gruffydd Jones' pure and sweet soprano, and both made the most of Tavener's flowing and melodic lines. The orchestra delighted in its solo passages, and then always remained in essential support of the choir. The three-voice semi-chorus was effectively distinct from the chorus, especially when they retired to the altar rail to sing their final phrases in what came across as little more than a whisper. This was a stunning performance of a splendid work. The lack of heating notwithstanding, St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, with its Gothic grandeur and resonant acoustic, was exactly the right venue for this concert.

Whether or not you missed the performance, if you are a Tavener fan, you will want to buy the CD of Lament for Jerusalem which these performances launched. The concert performers have recorded the CD with the same brilliant performance and sound, and the foregoing concert review applies to the CD too. Naxos is to be congratulated on the quality of this excellent recording. It has to be said, however, that the music of Lament for Jerusalem contains much that is now familiar, especially to those for whom his best-known work is Song for Athene, with the upper voices flowing over a sustained bass line with little melodic movement in it. In Lament for Jerusalem the music is moving, ethereal, mystical, and glorious. Like Song for Athene this is an elegy, but on a much larger scale and with an orchestra. It is to be hoped, however, that Tavener is not over-using this style and beginning to write to a formula. To do so would devalue his achievements, which already are many and great.

Review: Bursary Scheme Launch Concert, Edinburgh


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