Concert review

Giles Swayne: Havoc  BBC Proms Royal Albert Hall  8 September 1999

Robin Tyson, counter-tenor Philippa Davies, flute Alison Smart & Carolyn Foulkes, sopranos Kim Porter, contralto Andrew Murgatroyd, tenor  BBC Singers  Endymion Ensemble  Stephen Cleobury, conductor

When CRY appeared in 1980, Giles Swayne's imaginative combination of extended vocal techniques and African-derived melodic patterns was a radical shock to a British music scene still in transition from the post-war avant-garde. Havoc is the long planned sequel, and it is to Swayne's credit that he has not repeated himself. In subject matter and conception, this is very much a work for the late '90s.

The physical dimensions of Havoc are also appreciably different. To the nucleus of CRY's 28 voices are added a counter-tenor and continuo group, three solo female voices and a 23-piece ensemble featuring evocative percussion writing. All except the orchestra are electronically treated subtly and effectively, in ways that the Albert Hall acoustic comes into its own.

There are five movements, charting the 'fall' of humankind from its recent technological zenith of 'Journey into Space' - through the relentless pollution and deforestation of the 'Delicate Machines' of our environment; then the inevitable exhaustion of natural resources - 'Out of Air' - and descent 'Into Darkness'. The outcome is a dark and empty 'Nothing', the black hole to which we may be close to condemning ourselves. Swayne prefaces each of these movements with a prologue in which the counter-tenor, with attendant continuo, addresses listeners as an 'id' as against the 'mass' of the chorus - their undifferentiated responses highlighted by the decreasing number of solo singers who represent them.

It is here that problems arise. Each of the movements decreases in length and gains in intensity, while the prologues increase and assume greater gravity within their immediate context. Yet Swayne's material is insufficiently varied, in content or treatment, to enhance the dramatic polarity that this proportional change requires. There's little of the textural or musical focus that made CRY so compelling over a comparable span. This lack of focus makes Havoc seem a more provisional work; its clean but featureless vocal writing, of a text which offsets extracts from Sophocles's Antigone with colloquialisms long ago reduced to cliché, gives the whole a dated rather than timeless feel.

It would be a pity if the work were not to prove more durable. Swayne is a powerful communicator: some judicious cuts in the sequences of the second and third movements may help to give Havoc's currently 75 minutes greater overall momentum: like Birtwistle, Swayne occasionally lets his formal plans get the better of his musical instincts. For now, do investigate the BBC Singers' magnetic 1984 recording of CRY - on NMC D016 - and their collection of shorter choral works - Collins Classics 15312 - including the powerful Missa Tiburtina, the forerunner of Havoc in several respects. Whatever the reservations about Havoc, its sincerity and scope are not so frequently encountered in new music these days as to be other than welcome.


Richard Whitehouse

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