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Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Airs from Another Planet: Chamber Music and Songs
Nuits d’Afrique (2015) [15:36]
Three Chorales for cello and piano (2015-16) [14:30]
O Viridissima, for piano trio (2015) [4:19]
Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album, for string trio (1985) [6:54]
Day Break Shadows Flee, for piano (2014) [8:39]
Really? (2002) [10:36]
Airs from Another Planet (1986) [12;13]
Ailish Tynan (soprano)
Hebrides Ensemble
rec. 2019, St Mary's Broughton Street, Edinburgh, UK
DELPHIAN DCD34228 [73:13]

I came late to Judith Weir’s music, but all the music of hers I have since heard I have enjoyed tremendously; it is attractive, approachable and traditional in structure, yet with a modern edge. Born in Cambridge to Scottish parents, she studied first with John Tavener then with Robin Holloway at King’s College, Cambridge. I particularly enjoy her music for voice and one of these days I really must get around to listening to some of her operas. This disc concentrates mainly on her chamber music, although Nuits d’Afrique and Really? are for the soprano voice.

Nuits d’Afrique consists of four songs setting texts by three African women, and was premiered in the Wigmore Hall in 2017 by the wonderful Ailish Tynan, to whom the work is dedicated. The other star here is flautist Charlotte Ashton, which evocatively sets the scene and then weaves her way through the words quite beautifully. This is followed by the Three Chorales for Cello and Piano, a collection of three pieces based on religious themes. The second, In death’s dark vale is based on Psalm 23 from the Scottish hymnal. The third O Sapientia, is a variation on a hymn by Hildegard of Bingen and has a meditative quality that suits the cello well. For the third work on this disc, O Viridissima, Weir once again turns to Abbess Hildegard for inspiration, this time setting a “realisation”, as Judith Weir describes it, for piano trio, the violin soaring above the cello and piano in a work of great beauty.

We then turn to the earliest work on this disc, The Bagpiper’s String Trio, which began life as an “instrumental opera” entitled Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album of 1984. Originally scored for clarinet and piano, this arrangement for strings followed the following year. Its story revolves around the capture and ultimate execution at the hands of the English of the piper James Reid after the Battle of Culloden of 1786. The skirl of the pipes comes through, especially in the lament section.

Weir describes Day Break Shadows Flee as a “two-part invention, with the two hands – treble and bass – pursuing separate paths.” That is certainly true here, as at times James Willshire seems to be two separate pianists and not just one as the music diversifies. It was composed for the pianist Benjamin Grosvenor to play at a BBC Proms chamber concert in 2014.

One of the most remarkable works here is Really?, a series of three German folk tales retold in English translation. On first hearing, I instantly thought of the mix of sung and spoken texts in Walton’s Fašade. Including a version of the famous ‘Magic Porridge Pot’, this is an entertaining romp, where Tynan is again on top form. Perhaps the most modern-sounding work on the disc, Airs from Another Planet is scored for piano and winds, and suggests the music that might be performed by a colony of prospective Martian settlers who had been marooned for generations on a remote Scottish island in an experiment to see how people would cope if they were isolated from others for a long time. This is remarkable music, speculating on how elements of Scottish folk music would sound after it had undergone generations of development and change.

The talents of the players of the Hebrides Ensemble shine here; their performance is excellent, as are the vocal talents, whether sung or spoken, of Ailish Tynan. Add to this the superb acoustic and recorded sound and you have a first-rate recording, which, if you don’t know Judith Weir’s colourful music yet, would serve as a perfect introduction. It is also blessed with very informative booklet notes which add to the enjoyment of this music. All those involved in this recording should be heartily applauded.

Stuart Sillitoe

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