99 Words – Roxanna Panufnik’s Exceptional John Tavener Tribute

What a beautiful album. And what a fitting tribute to John Tavener and his unique artistic vision. 99 Words presents music that honors the memory of Tavener, interspersed with music by Tavener. It’s a powerful combination.

John Tavener’s sublimely spiritual music has a serenity and transparency that sounds like no other. Roxanna Panufnik doesn’t try to emulate Tavener’s style. But her music seems to come from the same aesthetic.

“Heav’nly Harmony” uses fuller harmonies and more chromatic accompaniment than the Tavener works that precede and follow it. And yet it seems to have a similar sense of spiritual grounding.

The title track, “99 Words,” is a heartbreaking, yet inspiring work. It’s Panufnik’s setting of Tavener’s last letter to his children. The words are spoken, wreathen in choral sound clouds with a cello obbligato.

The composer writes, “the cello represents John [Tavener] — supporting, encouraging, and embellishing the words.” And that’s exactly what it seems to do. Without copying Tavener, Panufnik has captured the essence of the composer. In the process, she’s transformed his deeply personal message into one we can all embrace.

Cellist Michael Barley contributes “Improvisations on Tavener themes.” This work for solo cello celebrates Tavener’s music as it refashions it.

The Voce Chamber Choir, directed by Suzi Digby, have an exceptional ensemble sound. And it takes an exceptional talent to make Tavener’s music sound as ethereal as it should. The Voce Chamber Choir does so every time.

This is just one of those releases where everything’s right — the program, the sequencing, the recording, the performances, and the music.

Especially the music.

99 Words: Sir John Tavener, Roxanna Panufnik
Voce Chamber Choir; Suzi Digby, conductor
Matthew Barley, cello; Simon Russell Beale, narrator; James Sherlock, organ
Signum Classics

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