Musical marriage made heavenly

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Where to begin? A piece of music that supposedly represents a “spiritual ideal” but is marketed like a chart-topper. A violinist whose beauty and innocence is used to sell anything she plays. A composer who equates his new work to “the annihilation of ego” but luxuriates in the publicity it generates.

Clearly the world premiere of Lalishri, a new violin concerto by Sir John Tavener, was always going to be an event. And even if it contains little drama or symphonic development, qualities that were never Tavener’s strongest suit, there was plenty of incident in Nicola Benedetti’s performance on Wednesday with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Halfway through the 30-minute concerto – a contemplative essay that depends for its impact on accumulated intensity – one of the strings on Benedetti’s Stradivarius broke and the performance ground to a halt. I remember this happening once to the young Nigel Kennedy in the Elgar concerto, and he simply swapped violins with the leader of the orchestra without a break in the music. But for it to happen at a concerto’s public debut – well, that’s doubly unfortunate, and it is to Benedetti’s credit that she was unfazed, making a quick repair offstage before resuming with the same expressive eloquence as before.

The musical marriage of the glamorous young Scottish fiddler and the 70-something composer-convert to eastern philosophy was, of course, made in heaven – though exactly where Tavener’s aesthetic paradise lies is hard to say. So much of his oeuvre is draped in religious hokum, with the same musical ideas endlessly recycled, that you start to wonder whether he may just be having a huge private joke at the expense of a gullible public. At least the new piece – ostensibly inspired by a
14th-century female Hindu poet who danced naked in public as an expression of spiritual enlightenment – started out with the advantage of not having any words.

That did not stop Tavener trying to superimpose them. In his pre-performance talk he said Lalishri was about “spiritual states of being”. It was while writing the music that he had come to realise that “the natural state of man is blissful” and in spite of the strong sensual nature of the piece it was “important that it makes metaphysical sense”.

Hmmm. I’m always a bit suspicious of composers who give a detailed description of what their music is supposed to say. And though Lalishri undoubtedly has its moments, particularly when the soloist apes the exotic glissandos of sitar music, the piece does not finally add up to much, and is considerably less hypnotic than The Protecting Veil, Tavener’s cello concerto. It is as if he would rather his audience were lulled into a yoga-like clearing-of-the-mind than engage with a musical argument that stimulates the cognitive senses.

Lalishri is scored for strings alone, structured as a series of self-contained “cycles”, and held together by a recurring passage suspiciously reminiscent of the slow movement of Bruch’s concerto. Much of the material consists of arpeggiated scales and simple chordal progressions, but just as you start to worry about repetitive strain injury, along comes a lively jig and an energetic outbreak of improvisation. Tavener’s best idea is a musical conversation between the soloist and a string quartet at the back of the platform.

Benedetti’s quiet musicianship came as welcome contrast to the in-your-face Juilliard school. But while she acted as a pure vessel for Tavener’s thoughts, I would like to hear Lalishri played with bigger tone and more personality (step forward Gidon Kremer?). Andrew Litton and the London Philharmonic gave impeccable support, in a programme framed by Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps overture and Elgar’s Second Symphony.
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