Tallis Scholars director Peter Phillips talks to Terry Grimley about the group's much-delayed Birmingham collaboration with Sir John Tavener and Vanessa Redgrave...
Originally commissioned by Symphony Hall to launch its 2002-3 season, the world premiere of Sir John Taverner's Tribute to Cavafy finally takes place there tomorrow night, a mere four years late.
The 45-minute setting of words by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) was to have teamed American diva Jessye Norman as soloist and Vanessa Red-grave as narrator with world-renowned Renaissance vocal group the Tallis Scholars. But this heady, if somewhat incongruous, mix unravelled when Jessye Norman withdrew.
"She had undertaken to sing the solo part, which is about a third of the total work, and as we got nearer the time she pulled out," recalls Tallis Scholars director Peter Phillips.
"The hall had sold on her name, rather, and they weren't able to find a replacement. We're now doing it with Sarah Connolly and because she's a mezzo rather than a soprano John has slightly rewritten the part."
The history of collaboration between Tavener and the Tallis Scholars pre-dates his emergence as a bestselling contemporary British composer. He featured on two of their discs in the early-tomid-1980s, one a compilation of Russian Orthodox pieces, the other, Ikon of Light, devoted entirely to his music.
"The project came about because one of the movements, number 2, John wrote for us as an anniversary piece when the group was 25 years old in 1998. Because John and I have been on holiday together in Greece and shared an interest in Greek things we hit on Cavafy as a perfect medium between our two worlds.
"I don't read a lot of poetry but Cavafy is someone whose idiom gets through to me - its highly suggestive but restrained style.
"We chose this poem In the Month of Athyr and did it with Sting as narrator for our 25th anniversary concert. Subsequently we did it with Paul McCartney, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Baker and various other people. We've done it about ten times.
"It's a nice opportunity to get someone famous, and all they have to do is read a poem.
"It went so well and I loved the piece so much that I thought of the idea of extending it. Sure enough, at the drop of a hat more or less next morning John had written the whole thing, without commission. Then we had to find someone to sponsor it, and Symphony Hall thought it would be an interesting thing."
Unexpectedly, Phillips cannot pretend to be all that enthusiastic about the piece. It's not that it's not good music, more that he doesn't feel that it has been tailored to the Tallis Scholars' distinctive sound.
"John got an idea and went his own way, which he's entitled to do," he says.
"The really interesting thing about this is what Vanessa Red-grave has to do. She has to read a lot of poetry by Cavafy. What we're doing as a choir - and we are a choir in this and not a chamber group - is sing ooh-aahs in the background. Effectively we are creating an atmosphere around what Vanessa Redgrave is reading.
"It's in huge chords, taking up whole pages, real choral society stuff. I've had to book 24 singers to sing all the notes rather than our usual ten. I don't know how it will sound yet, because I haven't heard it. I've looked at it, but it's not the same thing. But I'm not saying the music is not successful - I'm sure it's going to come out really well."
Tribute to Cavafy is actually the second of two premieres in tomorrow night's concert, the first being the Missa Tempore Paschali by the little-known Flemish composer Nicholas Gombert (c1495-c1560). To be more precise, it's the premiere of a new edition of the Mass commissioned by Peter Phillips from an American musicologist.
He explains: "It only exists in one manuscript and especially in the Agnus Dei it's cobbled together and doesn't work. You have to delete whole parts because they're just singing in octaves which is not acceptable. So it's the first performance of the new edition."
Gombert is part of a largelyoverlooked group of composers who come chronologically between two giants of Flemish polyphony, Josquin and Lassus.
"There's a bit of a gap between Josquin and Lassus and in that group come Clemens and Gombert and a whole host of others who all died about 1560. They all claimed to be Josquin's pupils, and Gombert could have been in terms of his age.
"This piece is very involved with counterpoint - eight parts operating within quite a narrow band, pitch-wise, so it's very thick to listen to. That requires real technique and an extraordinary ear. The Credo is in eight parts and the Agnus Dei is in 12. That's really big. I'm able to do it because we have all these singers for the Tavener."
Over the 33 years since he founded the Tallis Scholars Phillips has seen the interest in Renaisance polyphony expand considerably, and the group's live performances and 90-odd CDs can surely claim a share of the credit. So despite tomorrow night's world premiere he does not feel a compelling need to diversify into contemporary music.
"We don't exist to sing that, there are other groups that do it," he says. "I think we've got enough to do. We've been to Symphony Hall repeatedly and more or less filled it with more or less obscure composers. We don't have to do Tavener."
* The Tallis Scholars perform music by Gombert and Tavener with Sarah Conolly and Vanessa Redgrave at Symphony Hall tomorrow night at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121 780 3333). ..SUPL: