Sir John Tavener’s death in November of 2013 was not a surprise. In fact, for 30 years the English composer wrote music with the idea that each piece could be his last: “Death is a kind of spouse,” he said on more than one occasion. Inclined toward spirituality and mysticism anyway, Tavener’s works drew heavily on Eastern Orthodox chant and the traditions of Western and Central Asia; he also drew inspiration from the idea of something beyond death. Hence “Eternity’s Sunrise,” one of his most immediately appealing and beautiful creations. It is the leadoff track on the album of the same name, a strong collection of Tavener’s musical meditations on death, the spirit and ritual.
The piece “Eternity’s Sunrise” is one of a number of works composed around the sound of soprano Patricia Rozario’s dark-hued voice. It features a long, flowing melody, accompanied by strings playing open harmonies and punctuated by bells. The work earned some fame outside the concert hall when it was used prominently in the film Children of Men. The Academy of Ancient Music, a noted early music ensemble, provides a texture that’s more intimate and transparent than a conventional string orchestra; the Academy is one of a number of early music groups that Tavener began working with later in his career, as he sought to get away from the standard orchestral sounds so associated with Western classical music. “Petra, a dream ritual,” for example, is a work that Tavener recast several times. But this version has a subdued glow to it that isn’t as readily apparent in versions that had previously been performed.
The “Funeral Canticle,” also appearing in early-music guise for the first time, never hid its very personal, emotional core to begin with; but the clarity of sound here avoids melodrama and highlights the musical and spiritual directness that all of these works share.