JOHN TAVENER and ARVO PART – Works For String Quartet

This CD contains two one-movement named string quartets by British composer John Tavener [1944-2013] and two works by Estonian composer Arvo Part [1935-], arranged for string quartet. These two composers seem to have risen to prominence simultaneously and, in my opinion, tread similar paths musically. Their works are characterised by a sense of spirituality and an ambience that I haven’t experienced elsewhere, particularly with regard to string quartets.

The two Tavener quartets are quite long with the Part arrangements a lot shorter. Due to the emotional, ambient nature, I shall discuss the music rather broadly. The CD is actually under the name of Tavener but the Part pieces are important and interesting works in the genre. I will also follow the order of the pieces on the CD.

  1. Tavener – The Last Sleep of the Virgin

This work runs for 24 minutes. It begins with sustained chords and transforms into an expansive non-specific melody. This is a common trait for both of the composers. A brief pause brings forth some more ambient sounds. The piece drifts in and out of various nebulous atmospheres. A lone dissonant note brings about a slight change in mood. Another pause introduces a new section of sustained chords which develop into a slightly choral sounding passage. Now we have an ethnic sound and some intensity in melody. Please note that all of these different sections can last for 3-4 minutes. More sustained chords abound as the music incrementally moves through various changes. Towards the end of the piece there are some hand-bell sounds, together with some melodic development by the cello. Some further dissonance occurs but is soon washed away by another set of sustained chords. It concludes with no obvious ending.

There is an inherent spiritual introspection in this work. Also, while there may be different sections, the music doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It just is. I find it tremendously satisfying.

  1. Part – Summa, for String Quartet

Repeated motifs define this short piece. The simple interplay of the instrumental voices is very soothing. This doesn’t go anywhere either. It constantly grows back into itself like a Mobius strip. A sustained note leads to a peaceful end. This is a mini masterpiece.

  1. Part – Fratres, for String Quartet

I have heard several versions of Fratres, all with different instrumentation. The work is again based on motifs. In this instance however, they are developed melodically. There are sporadic soft percussive sounds in the background. I suspect these sounds are made by hands on wooden instruments. Variations of the first motif are very slowly introduced. It is very sparse music. There are various pauses and each time they occur, the melodic development is more obvious; the sound becomes fuller. Nearing the end there is a sense of winding down, the music being pared back to the opening texture. It fades out with percussive effects featured. A fascinating piece.

  1. Tavener – The Hidden Treasure, for String Quartet

There is a sense of ascension in the opening measures. A sparse violin melody wanders above a sustained chord. Occasionally, the second violin contributes a phrase. A pause restarts the process, with the second violin becoming more prominent. Now we have a crescendo; loud ethnic scales spike into the music until it reverts back to a solo violin. Occasionally a tempo is established but it never develops, always returning to the opening mood. At one point the crescendo returns with its strange melodies. It continues for many minutes before subsiding. A solo cello keeps the ethnic mood going over a hint of a sustained violin note. The feeling of ascension can be found here too. The cello is positively dynamic but it too succumbs to the underlying sparse texture. A very quiet passage ensues, and then we have another crescendo. The conclusion (yes, it does come) is a very long fade of a violin passage.

The work runs for 31 minutes and, while there is more happening than the first piece, I just didn’t feel comfortable with it at that epic length.

I hope I have shed some light on this very unusual CD. For me they are very ambient pieces that may not work for everyone. This is strongly introspective music with clear spiritual overtones. It has probably been claimed by the New Agers but this is a flawed argument. It’s real music, not repetitive dross. I would refer to it as meditative, save for the more dynamic sections in The Hidden Treasure.

Regarding availability, this CD is performed by the Chilingirian Quartet and goes by the name of The Last Sleep of the Virgin on Virgin Records. It is freely available on Amazon US and UK. Some of the works are on Spotify but not this particular CD. Several versions of the Tavener quartets are on YouTube. The Pärt works are too – you will just have to search for them. You can also find them on earsense, Tavener and Pärt.

As a postscript, you should make every effort to hear Steven Isserlis play Tavener’s magnificent work The Protecting Veil for solo cello and string orchestra, which occupies a similar musical space, also on Virgin Records. It can be sampled on Spotify and YouTube.

Listenability: Mostly extremely introverted, uplifting, spiritual music.




6 thoughts on “JOHN TAVENER and ARVO PART – Works For String Quartet”

  1. Eric, totally agree about ‘Tabula Rasa’, it was the first Pärt CD I owned. Still love Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Thanks for the Pärt recommendations!


  2. Wonderful job with the review John, I love parts of Tavener, you have to pick and choose your parts however and he is not above “pinching” music and passing it off as his own. Part is the real thing in everything he writes but leave his first two symphonies alone, his only symphony worth listening to is his third. As you said John, Tavener’s “The Protecting Veil” is a special piece in modern music, something modern yet extremely listenable at the same time plus the spiritual undertones make it just a beautiful piece to listen to. If listeners want more of “this” Tavener, the CD you reviewed is wonderful but I might add another piece as well, Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle”, This is a piece “stolen” from the Greek Orthodox Church’s hymn book so to speak, Tavener just wrote the “introduction” to the piece (which is its weakest part) and arranged the traditional “Funeral Canticle” which is a magnificent vocal work. The best version I have heard is on a CD called “John Tavener Eternity’s Sunrise” by Paul Goodwin and the Academy of Ancient Music.
    For those of you wanting to hear more Arvo Part, the label ECM is the place to start, I can recommend a number of things very much in the vein of the two pieces on the Chilingirian Quartet CD. Arvo Part came to prominence in the West when ECM released their ECM New Series label with a CD called “Tabula Rasa”, all Part compositions (also has two versions of “Fratres”, a violin and piano reading and a wonderful reading by the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), the high light of this recording being the modern masterpiece “Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten”, as I said, a masterpiece of the twentieth century music, a sort of contemporary version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major”. Other Part CDs I would recommend highly from the ECM label would be Part’s “Alina”, which sees two miniatures re-arranged two and three times, the wonderful “Spiegel in Spiegel” three times and the equally wonderful “Fur Alina” twice (actually just played twice). This is a wonderful miniature masterpiece of an album as well. Other high lights from Arvo Part’s music is the overwhelming music on the album “Arbos”, nothing in the previous ECM releases prepares you for the overwhelming impact this music makes on the listener, basically one of the best albums released by a contemporary composer anywhere. Finally I would like to mention Part’s piece “Litany” from the CD “Litany” which has the most glorious vocal beginning in all music, The Hilliard Ensemble are magnificent in this, this is modern vocal music that stands as the equal to Allegri’s “Miserere”, Brumel’s “Gloria” and anything Palestrina has written and is certainly the equal to anything Bach wrote (well maybe not the Mass in B Minor but we talking about Bach!). It is just the introduction to the track “Litany” but that introduction is one of those moments on CD that diminishes your entire CD collection.
    There, done, got that out of my system John, once again great review and I hope people will go out of their way to at least sample the Chilingirian Quartet’s CD “The Last Sleep of the Virgin” which I can’t recommend highly enough, and hopefully some other Tavener tracks but most certainly Arvo Part’s music. All in all, great music of the twentieth century, actually just great music regardless of the time.

  3. Good description of Pärt, Steve. He always takes me to a special place. I like some Tavener but mostly it’s all about The Protecting Veil. I find it quite profound.


  4. I really love Pärt’s music. He’s one of the few classical composers my wife and I agree on. The way he can take a precious few notes and weave something so monumental out of them is the essence of minimalism.

    I’ve always found Fratres to be absolutely hypnotic, and Summa is so poignant it almost hurts.

    I’m afraid I’ve never responded to Tavener’s music the same way.

  5. Beautifully expressed and described JH. Completely love Part’s music. He is my go-to for peace, calm and all things meditative. “Fratres ” works wonders for inner turmoil. Like a breathing lesson.
    Love your thoughts on Tavener. Have a huge place for “protecting veil” on so many levels. Will listen to the pieces you have written on him.
    Your words are beautifully chosen. E.g. “Möbius “

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