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Giles SWAYNE (b.1946)
Convocation: The Coming of Saskia Hawkins, Op. 51 (1987) [4:11]; Magnificat I, Op. 33 (1982) [4:22]; The Tiglet, Op. 68a (1995) [2:43]; Vidit suum dulcem natrum from Four Passiontide Motets, Op. 95a (2003/4) [2:19]; A Convocation of Worms, Op. 67 (1995) [20:00]; Eia mater! from Four Passiontide Motets [4:21]; Winter Solstice Carol, Op. 79 (1998) [5:19]; Midwinter, Op. 91 (2003) [6:39]; Fac me cruce custodiri from Four Passiontide Motets [3:39]; Dona Nobis Pacem from Four Passiontide Motets [4:01]; Missa Tiburtina, Op. 40 (1985/6) [20:54] : Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictis, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis Pacem
Michael Bonaventure (organ); Philippa Davies (flute); Stephen Wallace (counter-tenor); Laudibus; National Youth Choir of Great Britain/Mike Brewer
rec. Tudor Hall School for Girls, Banbury, 15-16 August 2004; St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, 8-9 January 2005; St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, 29-30 November 2005. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD34033 [78:40] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


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 label, DCD34016

This is followed by a Magnificat written in 1982 for the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. It has been included in anthologies 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 work sets. 

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 and foot-stamps.

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:

'We 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 Gabriel Jackson. 

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".

Julie Williams

 


 




 


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