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Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
The Consolations of Scholarship (1985) [22:28] (1, 4)
Piano Concerto (1997) [16:38] (2, 5)
King Harald’s Saga (1979) [13:28] (3)
Musicians Wrestle Everywhere (1995) [12:32] (5)
Janice Felty (soprano) (1)
Xan Bjerken (piano) (2)
Judith Kellock (soprano) (3)
Ensemble X/Steve Stucky (4)
Ensemble X/Mark Davis Scatterday (5)
rec. 19-21 April 2002, James J. Neylan Room, Lincoln Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. DDD



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 vocal talents.

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.

Robert Hugill


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