Judith Weir: Telling The Tale – Natural History … Legends and Sagas

“Natural History”

Natural History
Winter Song [London premiere]
The Welcome Arrival of Rain

Interspersed with Traditional Music

Ailish Tynan (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
André de Ridder

English Acoustic Collective [Robert Harbron (concertina), John Dipper (fiddle) & Chris Wood (fiddle & voice)]
Simon Thoumire (concertina) & David Milligan (piano)

“Legends and Sagas”

King Harald’s Saga – grand opera in three acts
All the Ends of the Earth
Missa del Cid

Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano)
Members of Endymion [Helen Tunstall (harp), Chris Brannick, Julian Warburton & Joby Burgess (percussion)]
BBC Singers
David Hill


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 18 January, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall & St Giles Cripplegate, London

Judith Weir. ©Chris ChristodoulouJudith Weir is the twenty-first and final composer to fall under the spotlight of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s annual ‘composer weekend’. Next year the format will be diluted to three separate composer days, spread through the first three months of the year.

It reflects perhaps a change in trends to shorter, more immediate hits, whereas a full weekend allows listeners the chance to fully immerse themselves in a composer’s output.

Weir’s orchestral music was the focus of the first concert, in the Barbican Hall, entitled “Natural History”. Weir’s orchestral works tend towards medium length, with each of the four performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra around the 15-minute mark.

The second performance (and London premiere) of Winter Song revealed a smaller-scale ‘concerto for orchestra’ of ever-changing textures. A joint commission from the Tapiola Sinfonietta and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Winter Song moves through a dazzling array of textures and colours. Inspired by “walking through the difficult days of winter”, the work has a forthright and often ornamented melodic approach, captured well by the BBCSO’s instrumentalists as they were pressed into action, also successfully conveying Weir’s rhythmic drive as the piece gathered momentum. With Sibelius and Copland palpable but not intrusive influences, the spatial awareness of André de Ridder was important here, and the balance between wind, brass and multiple string soloists was secure, leading to attractive colours and unusual registers. Weir’s structure for Winter Song was most convincing as it moved forward, even when the music arrived at a sudden full stop.

The Welcome Arrival of Rain is concerned with the Indian monsoon. It was fascinating to track the elements of Indian culture suffused in the music, with tight glissandos on the strings in an effective middle section, which also introduced prominent roles for tom-toms and rototoms. These vividly depicted the relentless pattering of the rain as softly ecstatic trumpet and oboe melodies move skyward – an effective programmatic response from the composer and convincingly performed by the orchestra.

Simon ThoumireSeparating these works – and indeed the two pieces in the first half – were brief sets of traditional music from England and Scotland. The second one focussed on Scotland, with Simon Thoumire and David Milligan performing a selection of Reels and a slower song, an affecting setting of Cowper. The Reels were characterised by a ‘moto perpetuo’ performance from Thoumire’s concertina, with rhythmic sleights of hand adding humour, though the amplification of his instrument was to the detriment of the piano.

In the concert’s first half, English Acoustic Collective found a restrained intensity to their folk material, original compositions but played in the older style by fiddles with no vibrato or obvious display. The refrain of the first song, “we will walk this world with music”, was most sensitively sung by Chris Wood.

Both bands helped provide context for Weir’s music, which takes elements of its melodic shape and directness from the folk idiom, not to mention a sense of community and respect for nature.

Forest, however, represents a more mythical place than a natural one, turning to the scene-setting of Weber and Wagner for its inspiration. Weir cleverly found space within this densely scored music, the kind you might find when spotting the sky between the upper leaves of the trees. With pentatonic melodies in evidence it was again possible to draw parallels with Copland but also Holst, and fulsome solos from cor anglais and trombones drew vivid characterisation.

Along with Holst, Weir shares a fascination and love of Eastern cultures, as in the song-cycle “Natural History”, in which the source material is Taoist writings. Ailish Tynan took a short while to acclimatise to the large hall and symphonic forces behind her, but gave an authoritative performance in the second poem, ‘Singer’, in particular, where the awkward intervals were comfortably secured with a fullness of tone. The orchestra offered support in the fullness of the cellos at the start of the first setting, ‘Horse’, and the stormy rapids of ‘Swimmer’. Weir daringly ends this song-cycle in a sense of bewilderment at the colossal ‘Fish/Bird’ hybrid “K’un”, and Tynan was alive to the curious text.

Vocal music was the focus of the second concert, “Legends and Sagas”, a discipline in which Weir has often excelled, and St Giles proved an ideal and atmospheric late-night setting.

Elin Manahan ThomasElin Manahan Thomas had her work cut out in “King Harald’s Saga”, the ‘opera’ portraying his conceit and eventual demise and calling for the unaccompanied soprano to take on no fewer than eleven roles in three short acts. This she did most expressively, seemingly immune to the fiendish technical demands willing her voice from a high upper register directly to a lower, husky tone.

This is one of Weir’s most humorous pieces, with a generous amount of slapstick applied to Thomas’s description of the Norwegian Army, and the florid, rocking motions given to Harald’s aria. In the aria assigned to Earl Tostig, however, the low range introduced a rather sinister air.As a storyteller Thomas was thoroughly convincing, as in narrating “Missa del Cid”. Remarkably prophetic at the time of its composition, 1988, this work juxtaposes elements of the Mass with the legend of the Cid, intent on removing the Muslim civilisation from Spain in the 11th-century. The ‘Kyrie’ sets cries for Mohammed directly against those for Christ, bringing into focus current world tensions.

The tenors of the BBC Singers were particularly anguished in their cries for Mohammed, while the Christians’ cried but once – and then in the purest C major. Weir’s word-painting continued to bring the story to life as the texts were given striking juxtaposition, and from the manner in which the composer covered her face in the audience it was clear this piece holds a particular closeness to her. Full harmonies from all parts characterised the end of the ‘Benedictus’ and were capped by high notes from Thomas, back in a soprano role, while the ‘Agnus dei’ suitably crowned the whole evening, its disjointed word setting deliberate but its textures given a softly glowing hue.

In between these a cappella works fell At the Ends of the Earth, commissioned by the BBC to mark the current millennium. Weir takes her inspiration and raw musical material from Perotin’s motet “Viderunt Omnes. The way the ‘cantus firmus’ gradually unfurls from harp and percussion is central to the piece. With some of the percussion directly under an arch on the edge of the nave this placed more emphasis on the singers than might have been the case, but balance was not a problem under the sympathetic and meticulous direction of David Hill.

The more florid and melismatic lines for the sopranos were performed unanimously, the BBC Singers excellent throughout, while the sonorous colours of the accompanying instruments added warmth reinforced by the male voices. When all voices were as one at the end Weir had achieved a most satisfying conclusion, some of the most revealing music of a stimulating evening.

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