Despite being one of the most performed and recorded of contemporary composers, John Tavener is a rather controversial figure. After a spectacular start to his career, he started to burn out, but following his conversion to Greek Orthodoxy, he started to take inspiration from his deep faith, shying away from anything too avant garde and sticking to slow moving, spiritual works, invariably including one or massed voices. One only need review the track titles for Children of Men to have some flavour of the faith that informs his writing. It's not clear whether Tavener composed these especially for the film or whether they are pre-existing works, but whatever the case, they seem an audacious choice for a downbeat sci-fi about a near future where procreation has stopped for the human race. Then again, the director is Alfonso Cuarón who inspired John Williams above and beyond even his fine standards for the third Harry Potter and his musical choices to date have been interesting and effective.
If you're expecting a work along the lines of Minority Report, AI or Bladerunner then Children of Men is likely to come as something of a surprise. The opening Fragments of a Prayer is prototypical Tavener; a single movement choral work for soprano (possibly alto) soloist and string orchestra. The basic material is extremely fetching, including a few melodic fragments that seem ever so familiar, although I can't quite place them. If you're not listening carefully, you could be forgiven for thinking that Eternity's Sunshine is an extension of the first track, although its slightly less ethereal melody and mildly discordant harmonies in the opening become distinctive. However, it builds to a more striking middle section, although still at a tempo unlikely to set even the most sensitive person's pulse racing. The two brief, central cues, Song of the Angel and the strings only, The Lamb, are perhaps more satisfying as they don't drag out the material to such an extent. The same goes for the gorgeous finale, Mother of God, Here I Stand which has the kind of dramatic punch that seems a little elusive elsewhere. Mother and Child for chorus and organ hits a late dramatic note and is the most memorable of the longer cues, mainly due to some very effective choral writing.
Three choral works by three other generations of classical composer form a central triptych; the Handel almost seems like an inspiration for Double Trouble from the aforementioned Potter score - probably a coincidence, but who can say?! Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n is from Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and is one of the composer's more insular works, but scored with typical elegance. Penderecki's Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima (1951-61) is a rather more daunting prospect, an abrasive modern work with scratching strings and dense, churning chords that, especially after the Tavener, come as quite a shock. Despite the different composers, the Tavener works form surprisingly balanced bookends around the other three, although overall enjoyment of the album is entirely dependent on whether you find the Tavener soothing and inspiring or just a bit dull. I must confess that in small doses, they are quite beautiful, although the lack of variation in tempo and only modest changes in mood do instill more than a little somnambulance, but are still worthy of investigation.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
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