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Judith WEIR (b. 1959)
On buying a horse (1991) [2.26]; Ox Mountain was covered by Trees (1999) [5.15]; Songs from the Exotic (1987) [13:14]; Scotch Minstrelsy (1980) [13:25]; The Voice of Desire (2003) [11:38]; A Spanish Liederbooklet (1988) [8:50]; King Haraldís Saga (1979) [13:45]; Stšndchen (1997) [3:15]
Susan Bickley (mezzo); Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Ailish Tynan (soprano); Ian Burnside (piano)
rec. London, November 2005, January, June 2006.

Judith Weir is "the Gabriel Garcia Márques of song", writes Ian Burnside. She's probably the finest story-teller among British composers, for her gift is to write intriguing miniatures that expand outwards into vistas accessible only in the imagination. For example, "On buying a Horse" gives seemingly straightforward advice about what to look for when buying a horse. If its markings are wrong "tear off his hide and feed him to the crows". But why and why such savagery? Weir compounds the mystery by fragmenting the repeat of this striking phrase, when, after the words, "feed him to the …", she jumbles dislocated words "Foot, feet, nose" before returning to the obvious "crows". It's as if the song fragments before your ears. It's highly disturbing and might be vividly expressed in film.
An even better example is In the lovely village of Nevesinje from the three Songs from the Exotic. Of the three short songs that make up this small group, it is outstanding because it's so full of drama and mystery. Why is the village of Nevesinje so lovely? Bucolic the song is not because it's about a violent curse following what appears to have been a murder. The Serbian names and place names are pronounced very arcane. The curse, which has something to do with changing sex, is sent in a letter to Bey Pivlyanahin, who receives it and starts to dictate a reply. But then the song ends, leaving us hanging, at a critical moment. Almost equally well known is The Romance of Count Arnaldos, set to a 15th/16th century Spanish text. The Count spies, quite by chance, a ship at sea, whose commander can sing the winds calm. The sailor tells him that he only tells the secret to those who sail away with him.
The songs in Scotch Minstrelsy may not have that same under-current, pulling them towards distant, unknown territory. Nonetheless, Weir intuits the fey beneath the dour exterior of Scottish ballads. Two nice middle class ladies build a bower in the open air to escape the plague, but it gets them anyway. Bonny James Campbell goes out on his horse, but it returns without him. Similarly, King Harald's Saga is a quirky update on ancient sagas, mired as they are in myth and mystery. It's interesting because it's an early example of Weir's work in music-theatre. She's gone on to become one of the foremost, and most idiosyncratic British opera composers, her Blond Eckbert being very highly regarded. King Harald's Saga, however, is a self-contained star turn. It's a one singer music-drama which places huge demands on the solo singer. Bickley demonstrates her acting as well as her singing skills. Moreover, the songs are technically demanding, stretching Bickley to feats of technical agility.
The Voice of Desire is the most recent cycle in this set, written only in 2003 for Alice Coote, a singer with a strong personality and distinctive voice to match. It's also in many ways the most innovative of all the pieces on this recording. The piano part is more dominant, struggling against the voice and making it respond more vigorously. It's also more integrated musically and texturally, and needs, more than the other cycles, to be understood as a single unit. Mysteries now aren't something beyond distant horizons, but internal. In the last section, the singer can't comprehend why her pet dove had died in captivity. After all, it no longer lived alone in the forest, and she fed it and bound its feet with silken thread. She just can't figure out what the bird had to grieve for.
Susan Bickley is something of a specialist in new English song, and appreciates Weir's idiom very well. Ailish Tynan's diction is clear and pure, as is Andrew Kennedy's. And of course, there are few pianists as adventurous and fond of new material than Ian Burnside. Thus this is a thoroughly enjoyable recording, even though comparative recordings are thin on the ground. One day, though, perhaps, this music might be re-interpreted with less elegant, and more gutsy voices, but until then, this will be the one to listen to. Weir is far too significant a composer not to listen to, in any form.

Anne Ozorio


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