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Judith WEIR (b.
1954) Three Operas The Consolations of Scholarship(1985) [21:32]
Linda Hirst (mezzo)
Lontano/Odaline de la Martinez Missa del Cid(1988) [19:51];
Nick Herrett (narrator)
Combattimento/David Mason King Harald's Saga(1979) [12:57]
Jane Manning (soprano)
rec. St Luke's Hampstead, 27 June 1989, 17 July 1989, Studio 2, BBC Maida Vale,
1 July 1989. CALA CACD88040
disc confers a welcome opportunity to hear three of Judith
Weir's short musical dramas, a form in which she excels. As
those who had the pleasure of enjoying the recent live performances
of the second two of these works at the Barbican composer festival
(also broadcast on BBC Radio Three) will be aware, these are
intrinsically theatrical. Any recording must inevitably lose
something and sound somewhat two-dimensional. This also reflects
creditably on the enthusiasm and talent of those performers
involved in the Barbican production - some of them young singers
and musicians associated with the Guildhall School of Music.
It also reflects the recording being made over ten years ago.
The first piece - from the composer's "Chinese
period" - is a showcase of female talent; composer, conductor
and soloist. This remains sufficient of a rarity not to pass
without comment. It is in the style and drama of an early form
of Chinese play from the 13th and 14th centuries. This is characterised
by dealing with philosophical themes in ostensibly simple cheerful
tables and combining speaking, singing, dancing and mime. It
is in two acts, their action being separated by twenty years
in the libretto and a short instrumental interlude in the music.
The first deals with the enforced exile of a virtuous official,
Chao, following false accusation by an unscrupulous general.
The second describes how his son, who having been brought up
by a holy hermit, is able to translate ancient literature from
the scrolls in a library. His skills enable the general to
be brought to justice. However the music itself hints that
threatened military coups will remain a regular feature of
history in this province.
second work, ‘Missa del Cid’, uses the format of the
Mass but is based on the bloodthirsty legend of El Cid. The
text was compiled by the composer from the 13th century Spanish
epic Poema de Mio Cid and from the liturgical Latin
Mass. A narrator introduces each section and then a sung element
based on the components of the Ordinary of the Mass follows.
At times different sections of the choir sing, chant or recite
different parts simultaneously - representing respectively
the Moorish and Christian elements of the population. It is
witty, effective and entertaining.
third of these works also takes a warlike theme: an unsuccessful
attempt to invade England. Although occasionally known irreverently
as ‘1066 in 10 minutes’, it refers to a Norwegian King Harald
who fought the English at Stamford Bridge in the North-East,
rather than to the better known Battle of Hastings, which took
place 19 days later! It is also subtitled "grand opera
in three acts for solo soprano" and is regarded as "a
vocal assault course". The singer has to portray eight
characters plus the Norwegian army in about the same number
of minutes, and this is certainly a formidable task. To do
so well without the assistance of gesture, facial expression
or props is a tribute to the performance here by Jane Mannings,
who commissioned the work and gave its premiere: at the Dumfries
in 1954, although from a Scottish family, Judith Weir grew
up in Buckinghamshire in the Home Counties. Whilst still at
school, she took lessons from John Tavener - who was based
not far away - and played the oboe in the National Youth Orchestra.
Her musical education then continued at Cambridge University.
The composer's work is strongly narrative and her interest
in a wide range of mythology and folklore comes to the fore
in this disc as in other works.
writing for the voice is clear and direct, with a simplicity
reminiscent occasionally of plainchant. Its style is ideally
suited to the setting of poetry, such as in the song-cycle ‘woman.life.song’,
a kind of modern-day version of Schubert’s similarly themed
work, where texts by Maya Angelou, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and
Tony Morrison are sung by Jessye Norman. It also works well
in opera and musical drama - as here - where a clear narrative
accompanied by occasional dramatic orchestral moments is particularly
effective. Her work has been widely praised for its accessible
style, which has also found favour in community and educational
projects. She has also written full-length opera, songs and
is a welcome and entertaining disc, however, these works are
even better with the additional benefit of live performance.
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