Judith Weir masterclass, assisted by Jane Manning, with Susanna Fairbairn (soprano) & James Sherlock (piano)

Sally Wigan (piano)

Nephele Ensemble [Nicola Smedley (flute), Celine Saout (harp), Samantha Wickramasinghe (violin), Jessica Beeston (viola) & Rebecca Hewes (cello)]
Nephele Ensemble. Photograph: www.nephele-ensemble.co.uk Not all composers are comfortable speaking about their work as is Judith Weir. In a masterclass on her 1979 “grand opera” King Harald’s Saga, Weir revealed many things about the process of creating this unusual piece. It came about following a commission from soprano Jane Manning, and it demands great things from its performer. It asks that the singer depict various characters in its ten-minute span, and all without accompaniment. One particularly taxing moment – abounding with rapid leaps – was revealed to have been “a kind of satire on the pitch-heavy work [Manning] had to do in those days”. Parody or not, it’s still an extremely daunting prospect for a vocalist. Susanna Fairbairn got around these dizzying corners with justified confidence. Her range (tested to the extreme) was also outstanding, her diction good, but the clarity of the musical line was sometimes lost to vibrato. Her searing expressivity was really exposed in Weir’s A Spanish Liederbooklet (1998), relishing the torrid texts and their impassioned arguments between lovers. James Sherlock captured the detachment of the piano accompaniment, particularly in the first song, in which both musicians seem to draw different material from the same subject.
Weir’s piano music formed the bulk of Sally Wigan’s contribution to the later concert. The Art of Touching the Keyboard (1983) favours playing of the more nuanced and delicately calibrated variety and Wigan responded well to this. The jazz-influenced harmonies require a sensitive ear for balance to be untangled, and the awareness of historical styles in Weir’s music was also evident in I’ve Turned the Page (2007) which recalls the grand gestures of the piano music of the Romantic era. Theatricality is injected by the instruction to the pianist to turn pages dramatically – a welcome, if slightly strained attempt at humour. Wigan depicted the stinging birdsong of ‘Le Loriot’ from Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux with real bite, but greater contrast between this and its becalmed and weighty chordal writing would have made for an even more effective performance. The haunted atmospheres of selections from Book I of Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects (2004-7) were excellently captured in this European premiere, however, with the lonely repetitions of ‘Cicada Sketch’ being particularly effective.
The Nephele Ensemble put together a broad programme for unconventional forces: string trio, flute and harp. Bernard Rands’s ... in the receding mist ... (1988) was a less than auspicious start – not for any failure on the part of the musicians, but for the score, which trod the same patch of ground again and again, finding little to interest in its narrow harmonic language and rhythmic formality. Much better was Stuart MacRae’s Nephele (2012; world premiere), which really engaged. Moments such as the opening’s blend of strumming harp and softly-blown flute revealed an inquiring imagination. Timothy Salter’s Aquaints (2012; world premiere) continued the tone of pensive insecurity heard in MacRae’s piece. This was particularly evident in the second movement (of three), marked “poised, calm”, but finding instead a troubled centre of some power. Finally, Jean Françaix’s Quintette No.2 (1989) brought some welcome relief from a heavy programme. Typically, it overflows with tuneful bonhomie, but there’s great technical sophistication in this music and it’s a devil to play. The Nephele Ensemble performed it with deceptive ease and charm.

 

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