At a time when opera impresarios in America are anxiously searching for potentially exciting composers to commission, it's inexplicable that Judith Weir is so often overlooked. Born in 1954, the British Ms. Weir not only possesses a strikingly distinctive compositional voice, she has shown an arresting flair for drama in three unconventional operas: notably, the brilliant "A Night at the Chinese Opera," of 1987.
This release, with Ensemble x. features Ms. Weir's 25-minute dramatic work "The Consolations of Scholarship," for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra. Its complex story, related at breakneck speed, tells of a civil servant in 14th-century China who is persecuted by a villainous general and compelled to kill, himself. Years later, his orphaned' son discovers the truth about his father's death while studying classics in a library and takes revenge.
The soloist, here the dynamic Janice Felty, sings all the roles as well as the narration. Ms. Weir's captivating score, though essentially tonal, is spiked with astringent elements; touched with folk music, both British and Chinese; and utterly arresting. The assured conductor is Steven Stuckey, a noted composer himself.
The recording also includes "King Harald's Saga," a tour de force for unaccompanied soprano (the bright. voiced and compelling Judith Kellogg), which tells of a Norwegian king's demise because of the treachery of a scheming earl.
These short dramatic works are sensibly paired with two instrumental scores, music of sweeping narrative fervor. Ms. Weir's 1997 Piano Concerto, while paying homage to, the delicacy of Mozart's smaller-scaled concertos, shows her in her most audacious mode from the start: wispy lyrical lines in the piano are cushioned by pungent chamber orchestra chords, until the piano turns agitated and a rhythmic bout breaks out among all the players.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 3/5/2006
In Weir’s 1985 opera The Consolations of Scholarship mezzo Janice Felty takes on, solo, a handful of disparate Chinese characters. With a small accompanying ensemble she successfully runs the gamut of operatice styles , from melodrama to recitative to strophic aria, and tells a high-speed tale of murder and revenge, while underneath her the ensemble exploits every available combination from solo to nonet! Anyone familiar with Weir’s full-length Night at the Chinese Opera, recently revived by one of the London music colleges, will know that her gift for story-telling chimes beautifully with her penchant for spare, angular yet attractive melodic lines.
The earlier opera, King Harald’s Saga, again involving only a single voice (coloratura soprano this time), is even more of a tour de force, as this time there is no instrumental backing! Yet until you have heard Judith Kellock here, or the unforgettable Jane Manning on the original Cala release, performing a multi-part trumpet fanfare, to the words ‘Tell us your tale, tall Tostig’ – you haven’t lived! In both operas, in both performances, the virtuosity is dizzying, almost parodistic; yet it is only part of the point, not all of it. Behind the quirkiness, but surfacing regularly, lies a vein of – what? – affecting simplicity? melancholy? wry observation? – that finds expression in such moments as the touching, purely instrumental lament after the death of Chao Tun in Consolations.
The same vein reappears in the two instrumental works, particularly the oddly titled Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, a 13-minute movement that’s actually something of a cheerful romp for much of its length, but also in the middle movement of the 1997 Piano Concerto.
More Weir from this source, soon, please, and a Second Piano Concerto from Judith Weir herself – and more operas like these.
Piers Burton-Page, International Record Review, 6/1/2006
A ‘grand opera in three acts’ for a single unaccompanied soprano, lasting less that 15 minutes? You expect King Harald’s Saga to be a joke, and there are indeed moments where the music seems to be echoing celebrated operatic extravagances, like Baba the Turk’s cadenzas in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. But one of Judith Weir’s great strengths is that she can combine irony with genuine depth of feeling, and in this early demonstration of benign iconoclasm she sets out a distinctive and appealing perspective on those alternatives to grand opera which music theatre has been exploring for most of the past century. Judith Kellock gives a finely judged performance.
Written six years later, The Consolations of Scholarship turns from Icelandic sagas to 14th-century Chinese plays. Here the singer is supported by a nine-strong instrumental ensemble which relishes in the kind of bold, pungent textures that Weir would soon develop in her first ‘proper’ stage work, A Night at the Chinese Opera.
This admirable disc is completed by a pair of instrumental works from the mid-1990s. Appropriately, in view of its title, taken from American poet Emily Dickinson, Musicians Wrestle Everywhere reveals Weir at her most streetwise, the shapely modal lines and sharply delineated rhythms, as well as the wind-dominated scoring, suggesting a host of allusions ranging from Copland to John Adams and Louis Andriessen. The Piano Concerto is another exercise in puncturing presentation, making strong points about how both lyrical and brittle textures can interact with folk-like idioms in ways where nothing seems diluted or bland. Exemplary performances given resonant recordings, and strongly recommended.
, The Gramophone, 8/1/2006
It’s good to discover that Judith Weir’s utterly individual voice, with its worldwide range of references and sophisticated simplicity of utterance, is finding sympathetic interpreters on the other side of the Atlantic. Record in Ithaca, NY, this disc presents four representative pieces: King Harald’s Saga, a witty ‘grand opera in three acts’ for an unaccompanied soprano in multiple roles; The Consolations of Scholarship, for an almost equally versatile mezzo and nine players; Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, an exuberant ensemble celebration of urban life; and the Piano Concerto, which deflates the grandiosity of the form in intimate exchanges between the piano and nine strings.
The Ithaca-based Ensemble X plays with great spirit and finesse. Co-produced by Weir herself, the recording is first-rate. An excellent introduction to a composer of rare gifts and immediate appeal.
Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine, 8/1/2006