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Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
The Welcome Arrival of Rain (2001/2) [17:16]
Natural History (1998)a [17:55]
Moon and Star (1995)b [14:12]
Forest (1995) [11:38]
Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1991/2) [14:24]
Ailish Tynan (soprano)a; BBC Singersb; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London, 18 September 2007 (The Welcome Arrival of Rain); 1 October 2007 (Heroic Strokes of the Bow); 24-25 November 2007 (Natural History, Moon and Star, Forest)
NMC D137 [75:52]
Experience Classicsonline

Unless I am mistaken, this is the first release ever devoted to Judith Weir’s orchestral music. It presents five works spanning some ten years of her creative life. As such, it reveals how the composer progressed over the years as well as how consistent her music-making has been and still is.
The title makes it fairly clear that the substantial orchestral work The Welcome Arrival of Rain, completed in 2002, was inspired by the annual Indian monsoon, although the music does not make any attempt at description. What is suggested here, is the idea of organic growth - but, now, what else is music? As John Fallas rightly remarks in his excellent and informative insert notes, “the music evolves in a succession of episodes which seem each to grow out of the last, so that its conclusion is experienced as both surprising and necessary”. Bright Tippett-like fanfares and held string chords open the piece in establishing a sense of expectancy. Out of this unfolds a long meandering melody with a slight oriental flavour that might be associated with India or Bali. The opening gesture underpins much of the ensuing music throughout the work. The music unfolds till it reaches a first percussion-led “tabla-like” dynamic section, that later supports a high-lying clarinet part. This leads to a varied restatement of the opening music, which in turn leads into a lighter section with “a trio of humorously marching bassoons”. Earlier material is recalled, albeit in fragmentary form. The music soon gathers considerable momentum unleashed in an energetic climax. The conclusion - solo trumpet and solo oboe over a shimmering accompaniment - “both surprising and necessary”, subtly suggests the welcome arrival of rain experienced as a soft blessing.
Composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Dawn Upshaw, Natural History is a song-cycle to texts selected from an old collection of Taoist writings. Each of the four songs is conceived as a miniature tone poem with a short orchestral introduction setting the mood. The first song Horse is about the negative impact (“the error of order”) of man on the nature of horse (and on Nature in more general terms) that “needs no lofty halls and no palaces”. In the second song Singer, an old, ragged singer, whose “face was blotched” and with “shoes burst and down at heel”, undergoes a complete metamorphosis when singing. Both text and moral of the third song Swimmer are rather ambiguous; for when the swimmer concludes his song with the words “That is how I stay afloat”, he may imply either bare survival or joy in riding the waves of life. The final song Fish/Bird is about the mysteries of Nature and of Space. The music dies away quietly in “the infinite distance”, thus bringing no resolution. This substantial song-cycle is a splendid work: the vocal writing is eminently singable and the often subtle orchestral textures never obscure the words, the full orchestral forces being used quite sparingly. It is also worth remarking that Weir deliberately eschews any attempt at any picturesque chinoiserie, thus emphasising the universal appeal and actuality of these old texts.
Moon and Star, to words by Emily Dickinson, is scored for small mixed chorus and orchestra. The opening section for women’s voices and orchestra, suggests the mysterious vastness of space. Men’s voices join for “the procession of amazing objects”. The music moves towards a varied restatement of the opening preparing for the dancing climax; but the piece ends as quietly as it began.
Forest, a tone poem, opens calmly with solo strings playing an undulating motif laying the seed of much that is to follow and weaving a sound-web through which tunes proliferate, at times punctuated by Tippett-like brass chorales. The work, however, ends abruptly and quietly. I notice that I have mentioned Tippett on two occasions in this review. Weir’s music actually shares – or so I think – some characteristics with Tippett’s: capricious rhythms, long and sinuous melodies and a real liking for bright orchestration.
Heroic Strokes of the Bow, also known as Heroische Bogenstreiche, is the earliest work here. It was composed for the Westdeutsche Sinfonie. The music alludes – often obliquely – to Beethoven. The work is actually scored for classical orchestra of double woodwind, two trumpets, timpani and strings. It opens with isolated notes and chords spelled out with much energy, but the music does not seem to have any clearly defined goal. It rather suggests someone lost in a maze and trying to find his way out in almost any direction, sometimes retracing his steps and looking for another exit. This trial-and-error process goes on for some time; and, then, all of a sudden, here is the way out: the fragments that had been tossed around for so long, at last fall into place. This colourful work may well be enigmatic, for one is not perfectly sure of what it is about; but, as so much else in Weir’s output, it is quite attractive, perfectly proportioned so that the music never outstays its welcome.
This is a magnificent release with five substantial, ultimately rewarding and attractive works in splendid performances, warmly recorded. Judith Weir’s music is of the kind dear to my heart for it is honest, sincere, often quite beautiful, strongly communicative and utterly accessible. This superb release should not be missed.
Hubert Culot


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