This substantial new work (over 50 minutes in duration) sets the text of the Magnificat interleaved with various related texts from Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions to create a dazzling sequence of textures. Written for solo vocal quartet, string quartet, choir, string orchestra, piano and percussion, the composer is Oliver Tarney who is the Head of Composition and Singing at Winchester College. The work was commissioned by Manvinder Rattan and Sing for Pleasure to celebrate Sing for Pleasure’s Golden Jubilee. On this disc, on the Convivium Records label Manvinder Rattan conducts the Serafine Chamber Choir and Sinfonia, with soloists Katy Thomson (soprano), Claire Tasker (alto), Paul Bentley-Angell (tenor)and Tom Herring (bass) and with a string quartet consisting of Elizabeth Melvill, Gillian Brightwell, Helen Goatly and Austen Scully.
Oliver Tarney interleaves the text of the Magnificat, in Latin, from the Gospel of St. Luke with texts from The Book of Mary – Surat Maryam (Qur’an Chapter 19), The Infancy Gospel of James and The Song of Hannah (I Samuel: 2). His introductory note suggests that he selected the texts himself which suggests and interestingly wide range of reading, and something of a religious turn of mind. This is reflected in the music which rather than a dramatic evocation of the words, is intended as more of a meditation, with the image of Mary recollecting the events from the distance of time.
This sense of multiple layers and multiple distances is evoked musically as Tarney layers his forces and having a near string quartet playing over the slightly more distant choir, for instance, immediately introduces an interesting sense of layering. Though Tarney’s style is rather different, when listening to this work I kept coming back to Michael Tippett’s Vision of St Augustine with its dazzling multiple layers and sense of different time spans happening at once, and its attempt to achieve transcendence.
Tarney writes generally tonally, but sometimes with some interesting harmonic effects and nicely spicy bits. This is music from which you can pick bits of influence (Britten, Tippett, RVW, Howells, plainchant), but to Tarney’s credit he weaves these into a series of fascinating textures which bespeak a voice of their own. And it was the textures of the piece that really struck me on first listening. He is adept at creating a sequence of different, complex interwoven textures from his forces and I suspect that most of the lines are eminently singable/playable yet mesh into something that has that little bit more.
And does it work? Well, there were a few moments in the middle when I felt that he could have done with getting a move on. But overall, there is that lovely meditative sense, with some really seductive moments and the magical feeling of distance and multiple events happening.
Conductor Manvinder Rattan is the Musical Director of the John Lewis Partnership Musical Society, and Head of Conductor Training with Sing for Pleasure, an organisation which has the laudable aim of encouraging better choral singing. Here he conducts the Serafine Chamber Choir (which was founded in 2012) which is made up mainly with Rattan’s conducting students (which must make for interesting rehearsals). The performances on this disc are excellent and the performers seem to be really comfortable with Tarney’s idiom (the choir premiered the work in 2014).
Not everyone will like the polystylistic nature of Tarney’s idiom, but on this showing he manages to achieve a lovely synthesis in a work which is as intriguing to listen to as it sounds as if it was enjoyable to perform.