This enjoyable disc is a collection of shorter choral works by
the innovative composer, Giles Swayne. The majority of them take
traditional religious texts as a starting point, but do not have
a traditionally religious stance. For example, the "Missa
Tiburtina" does not include a credo. African influences are
marked in the music itself, and one of the composer's major concerns
is injustice in international relations, particularly between
developed nations and the Third World. There is also a short work
-- one of a set of four Passiontide motets -- which is both morally
challenging and musically enjoyable, inspired by the continuing
conflict in the holy land; it sets a prayer for peace in Latin,
Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic. Some of the most enjoyable tracks
here are lively, rhythmic and vital; they almost burst with joy
-- for example the Benedictus of the Missa Tiburtina. There is
however a darker side too of the composer's work (more apparent
in "Havoc", his other large-scale choral piece, a later
and more complex companion to "Cry!" and which is here
represented particularly in the "Convocation of Worms",
a meditation on mortality for tenor and organ.
Born in Hertfordshire, Giles Swayne spent his early years
in Singapore and Australia before returning to England, first
to Liverpool and then to Yorkshire. This cosmopolitan childhood
seems to have been influential, as 'internationalism' is one
of the hallmarks of his work. He studied at Trinity College,
Cambridge; the Royal Academy of Music, London, with Harrison
Birtwistle; and in Paris with Olivier Messiaen. Encouraged
to compose by his cousin, Elizabeth Maconchy, Swayne came
to prominence with his landmark piece, Cry! (1980),
an epic 'Hymn to Creation' for 28 voices, amplified electronically,
which was inspired by ideas from African music and commissioned
by BBC Radio Three. The pieces on this disc are composed after
this; they show shared influences both musical and thematic
with this larger and perhaps better known work.
The disc opens with "The Coming of Saskia Hawkins"
- the only non-vocal piece on the disc - a work for organ
written to celebrate the arrival of the daughter of friends
of the composer. It is based on the first of a pair of earlier
pieces for chorus and organ on the plainchant "Veni creator
spiritus". Celebration of creative spirit, or perhaps
the spirit of creation, is a central theme of this disc and
this is therefore an excellent introduction. The work is recorded
at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh where the Rieger organ
is played by Michael Bonaventure. He has recently recorded
a Messiaen disc on the same instrument, also on the Delphian
This is followed by a Magnificat written in 1982 for the choir
of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. It has been included in
of modern choral writing and its reception by reviewers
has not been one of universal popularity. However, personally
I find it an uplifting and inspiring piece and one of the
tracks I most enjoy on this disc. It opens with an exuberant
quotation from a southern Senegalese song and expands from
there to explore and create a great variety of textures, before
ending with a solo soprano echoing Mary's words, which the
Next is a setting of some of the stanzas from William Blake’s
well known poem, The Tiger, performed by Laudibus -
a "moving-on" choir for graduates of the National
Youth Choir of Great Britain - who perform elsewhere on this
disc. The composer shares with Blake a strong sense of the
Divine in the natural world, and it is interesting to see
the synergy generated when their ideas combine. The vocal
parts are percussive and rhythmic, with singing of the traditional
kind interspersed with half-shouted interjections, finger-clicks
The series of four Passiontide motets then opens, but only
for its sequence to be divided first by the "A Convocation
of Worms" - with a very differing sound-world including
organ accompaniment - between the first and second of the
motets. Then there are two winter-themed pieces - a carol
commissioned for the Kings College Cambridge Christmas Eve
service, and a setting of Christina Rossetti's 'in the bleak
midwinter' - between the second and third motets. All of the
works are of intrinsic merit, but the sequencing on the disc
is in my opinion distracting - and this is my one main gripe
about a disc which is otherwise of very high quality.
The four motets are extracted from a Stabat Mater composed
in 2003, which alternated between choral sections and passages
of unison chant. The former were later extracted to form this
cycle; in the latter three vocal soloists join the choir.
They are austere but moving works, with the 'Dona Nobis
Pacem' being arguably the most beautiful and haunting
track of the whole disc.
'A Convocation of Worms' takes its title from Shakespeare's
Hamlet but its inspiration from mediaeval mystery plays. It
is a sombre and sobering reflection on mortality for counter-tenor
voice and organ; Stephen Wallace is partnered by Michael Bonaventure
with recording taking place - as for the opening track - in
Edinburgh's Saint Giles Cathedral. Its chilling tones do not
make for easy listening, but the performers are to be congratulated
on a truly spine-tingling result.
The Winter Solstice Carol was created in response to the prestigious
annual commission from Kings College Cambridge for a contemporary
Christmas Carol, offered to Swayne in 1988. The composer sets
his own poem – inter-cut with the Latin antiphon 'Hodie
Christus natus est' and has the choir accompanied by a
solo flute, played here as at its premiere by Philippa Davies.
It is bravely questioning of traditional beliefs:
cry for help, but who will hear ?
The sky is dumb. Our gods are tired and old'
However Swayne goes on to offer the hope of rebirth in the
arrival of the newborn - providing a link to the opening work
of the disc, another celebration of the arrival of the newborn.
The disc closes with the longer work, "Missa Tiburtina",
a setting of the Latin Mass - perhaps significantly minus
the "Credo" - named after the place where it was
composed. It was written in 1985 for a youth choir concert,
the Gloria being added in a revision the following year. Rather
than being an expression of conventional Christian belief,
it is "a prayer for sanity, and appeal to a higher authority,
a cry in the wilderness to a God who may or may not be there"
and "angrily critical of the intolerance, injustice and
corruption of our world and those who control it". It
was written in response to the Eritrean famine of the 1980s.
Yet although the conclusion of the work is questioning and
ambiguous, there are also times when the sound is delightfully
joyous - for example when 'hosannas' burst out of the Benedictus.
The young singers and those who have worked with these choirs
as educators and directors are to be congratulated on their
standard of performance in these interesting and challenging
works. Mike Brewer, musical director of the National Youth
Choir of Great Britain, who also conducts Laudibus, is in
worldwide demand as a conductor and educator. He has been
honoured with the OBE in 1995 in recognition of this work.
Born in 1962, Michael Bonaventure was an organ pupil of Herrick
Bunney at Edinburgh Cathedral and also a composition student
of Judith Weir
at Glasgow University. He is currently organist of All Saints
Church, Blackheath in London. In addition to being a popular
recitalist, he is particularly known for his involvement in
new works involving the organ. A selection of these can be
heard on various companion Delphian Records discs, such as
2000 Nails, DCD 34013 and DCD34027, sacred works by
Delphian have recently released a companion disc of Swayne's
instrumental music for cello, DCD34073.
Combined with this choral, release, they have made available
a much wider range of this interesting composer's work on
disc. The seminal 'Cry !' is on NMC/Ancora. Both the
sound and the ideas of this disc are challenging, questioning,
international, vibrant and contemporary. It is surely "music
for our times".