Stations of the Cross, Book I

Giles SwayneGZ041
Organ | Duration: 29 minutes

This sequence of 14 pieces (in two books) was premiered by David Titterington at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on 18th November 2006, and has since been performed by other acclaimed organists, including Kevin Bowyer & Simon Nieminski.

  • Jesus is sentenced to death
  • Jesus takes up the Cross
  • The first fall
  • Jesus and his mother
  • Simon of Cyrene
  • Veronica
  • The second fall

Marc Rochester’s review in The Gramophone of Simon Nieminski’s recording

For many organists the name of Giles Swayne became associated with their instrument with his Riff-Raff of 1983, which set out to bridge what the composer described as the ‘gulf between classical music and its popular roots’. The massive Stations of the Cross, composed a little over 20 years later, is a very different cup of tea, making no concessions in either its scope or its musical language to anything in a recognisably ‘popular’ vein. The scope of the work is dark, dramatic and emotionally intense and the musical language uncompromisingly dissonant.

From the dark, deep rumblings of the opening station (‘Jesus is sentenced to death’), through the almost inaudible agony of ‘The third fall’ and the vicious, swiping clusters of ‘Jesus is stripped of his clothes’, to the palpitations and desolation of the final station (‘Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb’), Swayne’s visionary writing is imbued with a level of powerful dramatic imagery that requires a highly resourceful organ and a particularly inspiring player to bring it off to its full effect.

It gets both here. The 2007 Matthew Copley organ of St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral in Edinburgh speaks in a disarmingly direct way with a sharp clarity that can seem uncomfortably harsh but certainly captures the work’s ‘immediacy and humanity’, which Nigel Simeone refers to in his extensive booklet essay. For his part, Simon Niemiński champions this vast score with a compelling intensity that captures the visionary scope of Swayne’s writing magnificently. This is neither a work nor a performance for the faint-hearted; but for those willing to give themselves up to this strangely powerful music, there is much to savour.

CD available from Resonus Classics: RES 10118

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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.

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 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.

Robert Hugill

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