Towards Silence at Winchester Cathedral

Prof Paul Robertson, who led the renowned Medici Quartet for 34 years and now heads the Music Mind Spirit Trust, will lead the UK première performance of Sir John Tavener's most recent work on 6 July at Winchester Cathedral.

Towards Silence, written for four string quartets, explores the nature of consciousness and the process of dying.

Tavener had long wanted to write the work and persuaded Robertson to perform it. However, shortly after the manuscript was completed both men became critically ill and close to death themselves. Tavener, who has Marfan Syndrome, an inherited condition that attacks the body's connective tissue, had a series of major heart attacks while Robertson suffered a near fatal aortic dissection.

Prof  Paul Robertson  recalled: "Just before Christmas 2007 we received the devastating news that John had been taken grievously ill at a concert in Switzerland. Shortly after this I was also struck down with a serious medical emergency and, like John, found myself desperately fighting for life in an intensive care unit. For many months, although unconnected, we seem to have followed similarly grim paths, balancing tenuously between life and death."

However, by August 2008 Robertson had recovered sufficiently to resuscitate the project, which had now taken on a profound significance for both himself and for Tavener who was recovering at home with his family.

The members of the Medici Quartet immediately agreed to reform and identified young professional string quartets with whom to perform and act as musical mentors. They selected three outstanding British ensembles for the UK performances - the Court Lane, Finzi and Harpham Quartets - and rehearsals began.

The music itself is based on the four states of meditation: the waking state, the dream state, the condition of deep sleep, and that which is beyond.

Tavener's vision is for all four quartets to be positioned high up in the cathedral dome, invisible to the audience, and arranged in the shape of a cross.

Sir John Tavener

Tavener first came to public attention in 1968 when his avant-garde oratorio The Whale was premiered at the inaugural concert of the London Sinfonietta. As the years progressed his music became increasingly spiritual in conception. In 1977 he joined the Orthodox Church, which was a major inspiration on his work.

Although Tavener's avant-garde style of the seventies contrasts with the contemplative beauty of his works for which he is best known, the seeds of the language he would later adopt were in evidence from an early stage. Some of his first published compositions, notably Thérèse (1973) commissioned by the Royal Opera House and A Gentle Spirit (1977) after the short story by Dostoyevsky, showed that spirituality and mysticism were to be his primary sources of inspiration.

His conversion to the Orthodox Church in 1977 resulted from his growing conviction that Eastern traditions retained a primordial essence that the west had lost. Works such as The Lamb (1982), and the large-scale choral work Resurrection (1989) date from this period.

The Medici Ensemble

Drawing on more than 35 years of world class musical performance, the Medici Ensemble is a leading international group, having appeared in more than thirty countries across five continents.

As well as regular radio broadcasts, they have a wide ranging and eclectic discography of more than 40 records which includes a highly regarded Beethoven Quartets Cycle, the seldom heard Saint-Saëns Quartets and Wajahat Khan's Sarod Quintet Raag Desh.

In 1996 Channel 4 Television broadcast a three-part series entitled Music & the Mind, performed by The Medici Quartet and presented by their leader Paul Robertson; these programmes combined music and science to explore the power of music in human life, cognitive and emotional development and health.

Although the Medici Quartet gave its final performance at the Harrogate International Festival in 2007, the same core members have since reformed, as the Medici Ensemble, in order to explore a wider repertoire and share its unique history with young professionals and Executive Leaders.