Swayne: Senegalese Song

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WORKS: Senegalese Song: O Lulum; Magnificat I; The silent land; Ave verum corpus; Stabat mater
PERFORMER: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Kate Symonds-Joy (mezzo-soprano), Ben Alden (tenor), Jonathan Sells (bass), Raphael Wallfisch (cello); The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572595


We open with one of Giles Swayne’s field recordings of a Senegalese work song O Lulum, whose refrain then finds its way into Swayne’s own Magnificat I. If this arouses the expectation (or dread) that we’re in for yet another incautiously blended World Music buffet, then prepare to be agreeably surprised. In any case, Swayne was making his researches in Africa long before musical fusion cooking became the rage.

As Magnificat I shows very enjoyably, like the great ethnologist-composers of the past (Bartók for example), Swayne makes everything he incorporates his own. So much so that in the recent, and very impressive Stabat mater, it’s more or less impossible to play ‘spot the roots’.

The semi-tonal chanted repetitions of the name ‘Allah’ in the ‘Muslim blessing of the dead’ have a strangely peaceful ritual quality – ‘authentic’ in some mysterious way, yet unlike anything I’ve heard from the Muslim world. Stabat mater has its entirely Western passages of thorny complexity and acerbic harmony, but these are thrown into relief by lucid vistas of touching simplicity. 


And Swayne is expert in his handling of unaccompanied choral resources. The earlier The silent land is a harder listen: long stretches of dense dissonant polyphony may tax the listener’s powers of attention. Yet everything is held together by a sense of sustained, muscular line rare among modern British composers. A very worthwhile disc, foregrounding a composer who should be much more widely appreciated. Excellent performances and recordings. Stephen Johnson