The lights were dimmed, candles at the ready. It takes a very specific kind of music to set the tone for a late-night concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and the intimate religious devotion of John Tavener could hardly have been a more apt choice as the UK prepared to extinguish its lights in a nationwide tribute to its entry into the first world war.
That came at the end of a packed schedule for the BBC Proms on Monday. Earlier in the day, the lunchtime chamber music Prom had offered a contrastingly uplifting hour of Mozart and Strauss played by London Winds, which featured well-known faces from the Nash Ensemble. In Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, K. 388, scored for eight instruments, the intricate part-writing spurred a sparkling give and take between players. Strauss’s Suite in B flat major for 13 wind instruments, by contrast, is solidly written, richness of colour being paramount (would any other composer have included four horns in such a line-up?), and London Winds produced a glowing, burnished sound in the ideal acoustic at Cadogan Hall.
It was a good thing half a day intervened between that and the late-night Tavener Prom, where silence and concentration were everything. Back in 1984 the Tallis Scholars and the ensemble’s founder, Peter Phillips, gave the premiere of Tavener’s Ikon of Light, and their technical expertise remained undimmed here, as the choir stretched over the work’s remarkable range of nearly four octaves, sopranos soaring to the heavens, basses sinking deep foundations of religious faith.
When Tavener died last year, he left a number of works still to be performed. One of the most substantial was his Requiem Fragments, receiving its premiere at this Prom from the Heath Quartet and Tallis Scholars. In retrospect it is easy to read into this music a valedictory mood, but Tavener’s use of formal trombones like a godly call from on high, a string quartet speaking quietly like an inner voice, and the choir settling on harmonies of resigned acceptance, all add up to a palpable feeling of leave-taking. At the end the music hangs in the air, as if looking out into eternity. There was no need for the BBC’s brief, candlelit first world war tribute afterwards, tacked on like an awkward afterthought. Tavener had already said it all.