Five world premieres and a beautifully constructed programme make this disc from Suzi Digby and London chamber choir Voce rather fresher and more special than its dated cover art suggests. The pairing of composers is a natural and by no means new one. Taking inspiration from Catholicism and the Christian Orthodox tradition respectively, Roxana Panufnik and John Tavener each represent different facets of contemporary British sacred music, and their contrasting styles – one dramatic, programmatic, the other meditative and transcendent – generates an interesting dialogue.
There are two factors, however, that set this disc apart. The first is the superlative cellist Matthew Barley, who not only serves as soloist throughout but also contributes a new improvisation on Tavener themes. Rhetorical without sentimentality, musical without being self-conscious, his contributions give much of this repertoire (notably Tavener’s Threnos and his Svyati, in which the Protecting Veil becomes a musical shroud) a life beyond Isserlis, and his thoughtful, highly textured improvisation dissolves and reassembles the composer’s signature sounds in a provocative musical intervention and commentary.
Then there’s the title track: 99 Words to my Darling Children is the musical keystone to the programme, a work that pairs Tavener’s own text with Panufnik’s music – a homage that borrows Tavener’s instrumentation and even elements of his style while also remaining true to Panufnik’s own idiom. The result – a lullaby that cradles its sung text with infinite tenderness – is exquisite, and beautifully handled by Voce’s amateur singers.
Of the remaining premieres, it’s Tavener’s Maha Maya, with its dynamic opposition between choir and organ (nimbly played by James Sherlock, with some blazing, brilliant registrations) that is most striking, and together with Panufnik’s muscular, episodic Dryden setting Heavenly Harmony seems most likely to make its way into regular choral repertoire. If occasionally outfaced by the very different technical demands of both composers, Voce’s singers give this repertoire a strong, and very welcome, first outing.