It ought not to work: a Romantic tale of mysterious strangers, childhood secrets and high emotion in the dark forest, set to music of deadpan simplicity and curt, pithy gestures, scored for small forces and all over in not much more than an hour. But work it certainly does. Judith Weir's treatment of Ludwig Tieck's story Blond Eckbert creates a compelling world, with suitable nods to Weber's hunting horns and Wagner's wood bird (and perhaps Janácek's vixen), but with its own ingenious methods of narration, and a strong sense of movement towards an inescapable and tragic dénouement.
This recording is of the original English National Opera production, transferred to the studio for a Channel 4 film, with outstandingly clear sound. Nicholas Folwell and Anne-Marie Owens are sympathetic as the couple at the centre of the story, Christopher Ventris is strong as their enigmatic visitor, and Nerys Jones is sweet as the narrating Bird, while Sian Edwards draws tidy playing from the ENO Orchestra. NMC's Ancora series deserves gratitude for reviving the original Collins Classics release, and offering collectors another chance to discover this remarkable and haunting piece.
Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine, 1/1/2006
Ludwig Tieck’s novella Der Blonde Eckbert (1796) is a dark tale of incest and despair made even darker by the ironic framework of a bird’s song extolling the peaceful solitude that can be found in nature. Judith Weir, writing her own libretto, has seized on this essential contrast. While her bird sings eloquently, joyfully, her human characters articulate their growing awareness of the horrors that surround them in lines that are questing, often aggressive, though never shorn of the kind of lyricism that best represents vulnerability.
Unfolding over just 65 minutes to an ending suffused with a spirit of tragic radiance, the opera is a gripping, harrowing experience, and admiration of ENO for commissioning it is tempered only by regret at their failure to revive on a regular basis a work of such intense theatricality and musical approachability.
This recording (originally issued by Collins Classics) is not one of the Coliseum performances but was made for a TV film shown on Channel 4 … Folwell and the rest of the small cast are persuasive, and the music is so immediate in its evocation of pastoral enchantment and menace.
Arnold Whitall, The Gramophone, 2/1/2006
Judith Weir's third opera Blond Eckbert is the latest in NMC's coral series of re-issues, and an extremely welcome one. It is also timely, with a newly-scored chamber version of the opera being premiered at the Linbury Studio in June this year. This recording is of the original 1994 ENO production, conducted by Sian Edwards, with Nicholas Folwell in the title role.
Blond Eckbert is based on a 1796 novella by Ludwig Tieck; Weir's own libretto is a model of adaptation, elegantly concise and thoroughly re- imagined as a theatrical work. The story is a proto-Freudian narrative of incest and insanity, pervaded by Gothic Angst. Although it is told in the idiom of Volksmärchen, Weir warns us, through Eckbert's wife, Berthe: 'however strange it may sound, do not take my story for a fairy tale.'
The plot is simple, but bizarre and elliptical. Eckbert and Berthe's quiet life is disturbed by the arrival of their friend Walther. In an extended aria - eloquently delivered by Anne-Marie Owens - Berthe sings of her early life, but Walther's reaction arouses the couple's suspicion. Hunting in the forest the next day; Eckbert kills Walther. Eckbert heads for the city, where he encounters a series of Doppelganger connecting Walther to Berthe's past; the opera ends with Eckbert sinking towards death, haunted by the revelation that he is Berthe's half-brother.
The music moves from a pastoral tone in Act One, with echoes of Mahler and Weber, into darker territory in Act Two, becoming denser, more dissonant, almost Expressionist. The most compelling moment comes when Eckbert, wandering alone in the city, recognizes one Doppelganger; the encounter - and the shivering music which accompanies it - could have come straight from a Hitchcock horror film. Typically for Weir the vocal lines are direct, often doubled in the orchestra or shadowed in a kind of organum, but always enabling lucid projection. There is not a word too many in the libretto, and not a word lost in the singers' performance.
Purely as a listening experience, Blond Eckbert works well. Since much of the opera is narrated as back-story, and the drama is predominantly psychological, it is more satisfying than, say, Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera (also on NMC), where the visual aspect is more greatly missed.
This recording is a reminder of Judith Weir's powers as an opera composer and confirms her as probably the only contemporary composer with the dramatic instinct to be a successful librettist. It makes a persuasive case for Blond Eckbert as Weir's masterpiece and quite possibly the best opera in English of the past two decades.
Bernard Hughes, Tempo, 4/1/2006