There is something remarkably laconic about
Judith Weir’s talent. She cultivates an economy of utterance
which is concisely to the point and not a little ironic, without
ever seeming too severe. Weir has a knack of reducing a work
to its essential elements so that nothing unnecessary seems
to be missing.
This is displayed in her early opera King
Harald’s Saga. This astonishing piece was written for Jane
Manning in 1979 and tells the story of King Harald Hardrada’s
attempted invasion of England in 1066 and his defeat by King
Harold Godwinnson at Stamford Bridge. The work is written for
just a soprano solo, but Weir uses the soprano voice with such
economy and appositeness that she creates a whole grand opera
in three acts. The work intersperses solo passages with spoken
narration to create a coherent whole. The libretto misses much
out but still manages to tell the story in epitome. The work
requires enormous virtuosity from the singers, as they are called
upon to exercise rapid changes of character, timbre and style
of music. The work reminds me a little of Cathy Berberian’s
Stripsody that Berberian wrote to show off her own astonishing
Soprano Judith Kellock encompasses all of
the work’s requirements and creates a fine, engaging performance.
I would have liked a greater feeling of virtuosity of utterance,
more vivid shifts of characterisation but a certain dead-pan,
un-showy delivery is perhaps in character for this economical
work. The entire work can be encapsulated in the final lines
of the piece, sung by an Icelandic sage: ‘always they say
the same thing: since so many were killed, we will never forget
and make the same mistake. But they do! And it happens again.
Why did Harald bother? He could have stayed at home and made
the best of it. I could have told him it would end like this’.
These words are sung with a wonderful resignation and detachment
by Kellock. In them is the core of the piece, which make it
seem, in a certain light, enormously political without ever
making a song and dance about it.
The other opera on this disc is The Consolations
of Scholarship one of Weir’s works based on Chinese tales;
her full-scale opera A Night at the Chinese Opera is
also based on an old Chinese play. For this work, written six
years after King Harald’s Saga, Weir allowed herself
nine instrumentalists who comment on the action along with the
soloist. Mezzo, Janice Felty is joined by members of Ensemble
X, Steven Stucky’s contemporary music group.
The opera’s libretto is a collage of events
similar to that for King Harald except that some of the
descriptions are entrusted to the instrumentalists. The result
requires concentrated listening from the audience, but it is
an enormously rewarding work. Again, the soloist’s delivery
is required to be a little deadpan whilst the instrumentalists
supply comment and accompaniment. The result is rather haunting.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this economy of means the work
is profoundly moving. It concerns a son’s eventual revenge for
the death of his father but along the way satirises militarism.
Like King Harald’s Saga there is a sense of underlying
political comment being made with economy and without fuss.
The solo soprano part was written for Linda
Hurst. It requires precision of utterance and great dramatic
awareness. I am not quite certain if Janice Felty is ideal in
the role but she certainly conveys the work’s bewildering variety
of mood. It helps that her diction is good - there is no libretto
- so that Weir’s precision in word-setting is conveyed admirably.
Felty is well supported by the ensemble.
As an accompaniment to these two pieces,
Ensemble X play two of Weir’s later instrumental pieces. The
Piano Concerto was premiered in 1997 at the Spitalfields Festival
by William Howard (piano) and the BT Scottish Ensemble. Here
Xak Bjerken takes the piano part and Ensemble X is admirably
directed by Mark Davis Scatterday.
Again, the work is concerned with economy
of means. Weir conceived the work as an antidote to the 20th
century habit of thinking that bigger is better. It is written
for piano and nine solo strings. Weir’s aim was to emulate Mozart’s
early piano concertos. Bjerken and Ensemble X easily encompass
the work’s combination of bravura and intimacy. The piece has
an impressive chamber music feel.
The disc finishes with Musicians Wrestle
Everywhere, which Weir describes as a one-movement concerto
for ten instruments. It was first performed by the Birmingham
Contemporary Music Group in 1995. The title refers to an Emily
Dickinson poem, “Musicians wrestle everywhere/All day among
the crowded air/I hear the silver strife...” The piece has
its origins in Weir’s attempts to write down the urban street
music of her own time, in the way Vivaldi’s pastoral concertos
concern themselves with trilling birds, rilling brooks and showers
of rain. The results are a little distant from the work’s origins,
but the piece has a winning sense of an underlying programme,
as if a small drama is being played out for us.
This is an appealing disc of Judith Weir’s
music. The original recordings of King Harald’s Saga
and The Consolations of Scholarship seems to have fallen
out of the catalogue so that this disc is doubly welcome. Whilst
I might have quibbles with some of the performances, I can wholeheartedly
recommend the disc to those who would like to get to know the
music of this approachable but elusive composer. To those who
already possess these works, then these performances are strong
enough to stand up in their own right and earn their own place
on the library shelves. Judith Weir is credited as being one
of the producers of the recording, so it must be considered
to have some sort of imprimatur.