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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 [55.01]
Experience Classicsonline

This 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.
The 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.
The 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 Music Club.
Born 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.
Her 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 ‘’, 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 chamber music.
This is a welcome and entertaining disc, however, these works are even better with the additional benefit of live performance.
Julie Williams


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