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Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Disc 1

Piano Concerto (1997)a
Music for 247 Strings (1981)b
Piano Trio (1997)c
Arise! Arise! (1997)d
Piano Quartet (2000)e
Disc 2

Distance and Enchantment (1988)f
The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1988)g
The Art of Touching the Keyboard (1988)h
I Broke Off a Golden Branch (1991)i
Ardnamurchan Point (1990)j
El Rey de Francia (1993)k
The King of France (1993)l
William Howard (piano)abcdehijk; Petra Casén (piano)i; Susan Tomes (piano)l; Simon Blendis (violin)b; The Schubert Ensembleacdeik; Domusfg
Recorded: Champs Hill, Pulborough,, Sussex, November 2002 (Disc 1) and All saints Church, East Finchley, London, February and March 1990 (Disc 2)
NMC ANCORA+ D 090 [61:23 + 57:50]

This is a particularly generous Ancora+ release since the first disc includes hitherto unrecorded works, some of which are fairly recent. Three of them were completed in 1997 whereas a fourth, the Piano Quartet, was composed in 2000. The works on Disc 2 were previously released on Collins 14532.

So, let us begin with the works in Disc 1, the earliest of which is Music for 247 Strings of 1981. This is a short duo for violin and piano (hence the 247 strings of the title) consisting of ten tiny sections played without a break in which violin and piano unite, separate and unite again. The Piano Concerto of 1997 is scored for a small string section (actually nine solo strings) conducted from the keyboard, but may be played with a larger body of players with a conductor. The first movement is somewhat weightier than the other two, whereas the second, described as a florid completion of a fragmentary English folk song The Sweet Primroses is primarily song-like in contrast with a lively third movement rather like a Scottish strathspey-and-reel. This is quite typical of Weir’s shorter works often displaying folk-like traits or quoting folk songs, consciously or not. This is one of the most endearing qualities of Weir’s frequently attractive music. The Piano Trio is in three concise movements inspired, so the composer tells us, by Venice (first movement), Africa (second movement) and the Western Hebrides (third movement), although this does not really comes through in the music, except perhaps in the concluding movement. Judith Weir never really forgets her Scottish roots. Arise! Arise! for piano quartet, written for the Schubert Ensemble, is a short piece meant for amateur musicians and is based on an English-American folk song (Arise! Arise! You slumbering sleepers). This delightful trifle is over in less than three minutes! The Piano Quartet is rather more substantial, with a weighty first movement and a, mostly slow, second movement again based on a folk tune from Louisiana Blanche comme la neige. This is a very attractive piece of music that communicates in straightforward manner, partly because of the many folk-like inflections in the music, but also through its apparent simplicity.

Most works on Disc 2 also display a good deal of folk and folk-like material, often based on actual, though not necessarily British folk songs. For example, the second movement of the piano quintet I Broke Off a Golden Branch obliquely refers to a Croatian choral tune, whereas The King of France and El Rey de Francia are based on the same Spanish-Arabic folk tune. The lovely Distance and Enchantment for piano quartet "explores a common theme in British folklore; the phenomenon of sudden disappearance" in two movements based on a folk song from Northern Ireland and another from Scotland. Similarly, The Bagpiper’s String Trio, described by the composer as a short instrumental opera about the life of James Reid, a bagpiper in Bonny Prince Charlie’s army, is based on ornamentations of Scottish bagpipe music. In total contrast, The Art of Touching the Keyboard, a short single movement sonata, explores the whole dynamic and expressive range of the piano. Surprisingly enough, Ardnamurchan Point for two pianos is an abstract piece of music, although there is no denying that the piece as a whole may evoke the western Scottish seashore, again with some reference to a Hebridean melody. This is a fairly impressive piece that deserves to be better known and that should feature more often in two-piano recitals. As already mentioned, both El Rey de Francia and The King of France are based on the same Spanish-Arabic tune. The former is a short tribute to David Matthews on his fiftieth birthday. It is in the form of a short, almost minimalist loop, whereas the latter is a rather more substantial set of often virtuosic variations. It repays repeated hearings.

Although she has composed several substantial works so far, among which her operas The Vanishing Bridegroom, A Night at the Chinese Opera (available on NMC D060) and Blond Eckbert (once available on Collins 14612, hopefully to be re-issued soon), Judith Weir is at her best in short, concise works in which she resourcefully exploits limited basic material in such a way that the pieces never outstay their welcome. Plenty of such works here.

All these performances are really very fine and could not be bettered. They serve Weir’s colourful and engaging music well. This is a most desirable release on all counts.

Hubert Culot


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