Tuesday 9 April 2013

Giles Swayne - Stations of the Cross

Giles Swayne - Stations of the Cross; Simon Nieminski, Resonus Classics RES10118
In 2004 Bath Camerata under Nigel Perrin premiered Giles Swayne's Stabat Mater, a work which takes the crucifixion story and puts it in a contemporary Palestinian context, so that the grieving Mother of Christ is echoed by the grieving mothers of today. It was this work which was one of the origins of Swayne's organ piece, Stations of the Cross. In the Roman Catholic liturgy the Stations of the Cross are 14 meditations on the crucifixion which are performed regularly in Lent. I have sung in one or two of Swayne's pieces and he has a way of approaching the traditional from a striking new point of view. This new recording from Resonus Classics gives us Swayne's dramatic and thoughtful organ piece Stations of the Cross played by Simon Nieminski on the organ of St. Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral (RC), Edinburgh.

Though brought up a Roman Catholic, Swayne is now a non-believer and views the crucifixion story from a purely human point of view. For him it is no less affecting and moving, both his Stabat Mater and Stations of the Cross are explorations of what it means to undertake such a sacrifice.

In 2002, Swayne saw Eric Gill's carved stone Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral and they were the other point of origin for the organ work. Started shortly after the premiere of Swayne's Stabat Mater, the Stations of the Cross consists of 14 movements (one for each station) divided into two books. They were commissioned by Cambridge Summer Schools and Dartington International Summer School, and written in 2004 and 2005.

Swayne attended Olivier Messiaen's composition class at the Paris Conservatoire in 1976-77. Swayne does not imitate Messiaen's sound-world, nor does he approach the subject with Messiaen's religiosity but Swayne's approach to writing for the organ is similarly bold and non-traditional. From the opening low rumble in the pedals, Swayne explores all of the extremes of pitch, sonority and timbre that the instrument has to offer. This recording from Resonus Classics is available in lossless 16-bit FLAC format and if you can, then play this format so that you get the best from the recording. This is definitely a work where the recording benefits from high quality sound and equipment.

The piece itself is highly organised. Each movement is based around a key-note and these rise by a semitone between movements, giving the work some sort of harmonic progress but also mirroring Christ's own journey. Within the movements Swayne has used a pair of eight-note modes, the first in the introduction and the second in the main body of the piece. The result could be rather dry, but certainly isn't. You do not need to know about his construction methods, but they give the work as sense of harmonic stability whilst allowing dynamic flow and change. If do you want to learn more, then Swayne has written an accompanying analysis which can be downloaded from the Resonus Classics website.

Swayne's music is tonal only in the loosest possible sense of the word, but his construction techniques ensure that the harmonic movement is always away from a base, you feel that the music is coming from somewhere and going to somewhere; this is important. Stations of the Cross is a long work, some 60 minutes, far too long to be anchored in some sort of a-tonal stasis.

Within each movement there is a strong sense of drama, though the result is not quite as theatrical as I expected. To describe the music as contemplative is wrong, but it is certainly thoughtful and rather austere, despite the wide tonal range and virtuoso feel. Swayne was clearly influenced both by the meditative nature of the Roman Catholic Station of the Cross, but also the highly dramatic and passionate sense of the crucifixion story itself.

The work is further organised into two books, two groups of seven pieces. The first group ends with The Second Fall, where Swayne contrasts raw suffering with playful, scherzo-like music marked 'Joking Jesus'. This is a reference to Oliver St. Gogarty's bawdy verse which is quoted in James Joyce's Ulysses, the idea that Jesus's humanity encompasses not only suffering but joking with the crowd. The second group concludes with Jesus Body is Laid in the Tomb, a full scale prelude and fugue which takes Bach and extends his structures into the 21st century, a three-part trio sonata prelude leads to a five-part fugue which concludes this amazing piece.

Organ of St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh - Matthew Copley Organ Design
The work is played by Simon Nieminski who is organist of St. Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral (RC) in Edinburgh (having previous been Master of the Music at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh). He plays the 2007 instrument in St. Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral built by Matthew Copley Organ Design. It has three manuals, five divisions, 63 speaking stops and two consoles (further details of the organ specification are available on the cathedral website.)

The engineers have captured the organ quite brilliantly, though what you miss in the the recording of course is the sheer physicality of the organ, the dull throb of the lowest 16 foot and 32 foot stops.

Nieminski gives a virtuoso performance, one that is admirable in every way, and he gets the best out of his organ as well as bringing out the dramatic subtlety of Swayne's work. Nieminski's pacing is very fine, allowing the piece to develop naturally with moments of contemplation and quiet, but still with an underlying dramatic flow.

Swayne's work is dramatic virtuoso addition to the organ repertoire, massive both in scale and in the emotions it seeks to evoke. The work is a fine continuation of the tradition of Messiaen's large-scale organ works and receives a strong performances from Nieminski.

Giles Swayne - The Stations of the Cross (2004/5) [60.28]
Simon Nieminski (organ)
Recorded at St. Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral (RC), Edinburgh
RESONUS CLASSICS RES10118 download only [60.28]

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