Giles SWAYNE (b. 1946)
Magnificat I (1982) [4.18]
The silent land (1997) [22.58] (2)
Ave verum corpus (2003) [3.08]
Stabat mater (2004) [36.18]
O Lulum [1.37] (1)
The La Jola people, Senegal (1)
Raphael Wallfisch (cello) (2)
The Dimitri Ensemble/Graham Ross
rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 7-9 April 2010, except for O Lulum. Senegal, 1982
NAXOS 8.572595 [68.18]
There’s something of a Clare College vein running through this disc. Giles Swayne, a Cambridge graduate himself, has been teaching composition at the university since 2003 and has been composer-in-residence at Clare since 2008. Though Timothy Brown, the college’s Director of Music between 1979 and 2010, isn’t involved with this disc per se, Swayne credits Brown with “luring” him back to Cambridge. Brown directed the first performance of The silent land and Ave verum corpus was composed for him and the Clare choir. Then we have Graham Ross, the conductor on this disc and Brown’s successor at Clare College; he was once a student of Swayne’s at Clare. To complete the Clare picture the producer, engineer and editor of this disc is none other than John Rutter. I mention all this not to give the impression of some cosy club but rather to suggest that here we have evidence of several experienced musicians collaborating on the choral music of an important composer and friend.
All but one of these Swayne pieces are receiving their first recordings. The exception is his 1982 Magnificat which, by coincidence, I first heard in a recording conducted by John Rutter. It’s based on a traditional Senegalese song which Swayne encountered and recorded while undertaking field research in Senegal. I’ve heard the Magnificat several times, both on disc and in performance, but I’ve never heard the song on which it’s based. Here, very imaginatively, the recording that Swayne made over thirty years ago precedes the Magnificat and I found that tremendously helpful. Swayne’s piece contains complex, robust and exuberant choral writing which is delivered superbly here; I’ve never enjoyed the piece so much.
The silent land is described by the composer as the outcome of his desire to write “a Requiem which omitted God, punishment and reward, and concentrated on the acceptance of human loss.” For his text Swayne assembled words by Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stephenson and Dylan Thomas as well as from the Requiem Mass. The work is scored for solo cello and, like Tallis’s Spem in Alium, eight five-part choirs, with each choir including a soloist so that there’s in effect an SATB semi-chorus. The cello represents the individual soul, the semi-chorus the grieving family and the main choirs the “wider community”.
The piece is not for the faint-hearted. From start to finish the music is extremely intense and impassioned and I didn’t find listening to it a comfortable experience - I’m sure Swayne didn’t intend it to be. It’s music that confronts the listener. At times, especially during roughly the first half of the piece, the choral textures are teeming and as the volume increases the cello is almost overwhelmed, quite possibly by design. From about 12:30 onwards the singers sing over and over again the words “Requiescant in pace” against which the cello has impassioned, pretty unceasing music. I don’t know whether this is the intention but I received the impression that the soul, as represented by the cello, is in its death throes, struggling - and perhaps raging - against the onset of death. The piece is a tour de force for all concerned and it receives a performance of blistering intensity.
All that said, my subjective response to The silent land is, at best, lukewarm. Partly this is a matter of personal taste. I found it all pretty unrelenting and even, at times, aggressive. Furthermore - and I acknowledge readily that we all have individual responses to works of art - it seems to me that there is a gentle, consoling aspect to the Rossetti words in particular and Swayne’s music strikes me as completely at odds with this side of the words. The music eventually attains quietness of a sort in the last three minutes or so but then the very last time that the choir sings “Requiescant in pace” it’s in a manner that sounds more like an angry demand than a plea. The other reaction I have to the piece is that it seems too long. I don’t feel much would have been lost if the section from 12:30 to the end had been half the length. This is not for me, I’m afraid, and I can’t see myself returning to this piece.
If I say that the music of the Stabat Mater is more “traditional” I don’t mean that in any derogatory fashion. Swayne himself says that he felt it right to use “simple musical language” on this occasion and the result is a piece that I found much more approachable than The silent land yet it sacrifices nothing in terms of eloquence or intensity. In contemplating setting the medieval Christian text Swayne says that he was conscious of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that “the events it [the Stabat Mater] relates are being repeated today, a stone’s throw from the place where Jesus is said to have been crucified.” As he says when people perish in conflict, “it is always the women who are left behind.” So in this setting for unaccompanied SATB soloists and choir Swayne juxtaposes the Latin text of the Stabat Mater with Hebrew and Aramaic texts. I think this works extremely well and Swayne has produced a work that is nothing if not thought-provoking.
Though he’s used simpler musical language as compared to The silent land I doubt the Stabat Master is any less demanding to sing. The music is often searingly intense and the performance it receives here is similarly intense. The singing has tremendous conviction and the four soloists sing their roles ardently. I found it challenging to hear but rewarding and moving. Unlike The silent land I felt that the piece sustains its length - perhaps it helps that it’s divided into thirteen separate sections, each helpfully tracked separately by Naxos. The performance of this testing piece generates genuine and consistent tension and this is a piece to which I expect to return.
It’s always a little difficult to judge when one is listening to unfamiliar music, particularly the music of our own time, but it seems to me that Graham Ross and The Dimitri Ensemble deliver tremendous performances of these challenging pieces. The music-making burns with conviction and I would imagine that Giles Swayne is delighted with the results. The recorded sound has terrific presence and the composer contributes a very useful booklet note.
Tremendous performances of challenging choral pieces.
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