Judith Weir’s stature as one of the most interesting contemporary classical composers in British music is reinforced on this double album release from NMC.
The album repackages old recordings of Distance & Enchantment, I Broke Off A Golden Branch and The Bagpiper’s String Trio and adds them to new versions of the Piano Concerto and Piano Quartet among others. In this case they have been aided by the extremely talented chamber groups the Schubert Ensemble and Domus.
Weir’s compositional style is one of economy, never using more notes than is necessary and often ending a piece suddenly, as if in mid-air. She frequently takes folk melodies as her starting point, dressing them within her own individual harmonic style. These range from places as far apart as Africa, China, Croatia and Scotland the country on which much of Weir’s programmatic music leans.
Occasionally the open textures of the Piano Concerto bring Aaron Copland to mind, as does the atmospheric opening of the Piano Trio. And when Weir’s shorter pieces quote more directly from folk material it’s like unwrapping an outer layer from her music, as in the short concentrated span of Arise! Arise! and El Rey de Francia.
Following the later is a set of variations played by the pianist Susan Tomes perfectly poised. Another outstanding pianist William Howard, shines in the piece The Art Of Touching The Keyboard an extended bravura study in methods of attack, touch and control. The addition of a double bass to the texture for ‘Golden Branch’ gives more depth and variation, with Weir exploiting the lower register in the scurrying figures later on in the work. The ghostly coda of harmonics is cold and raw.
The choices of instrumentation, never more than ten players throughout, bring the fierce intimacy of this music home, and the similarity in scoring of each piece mean it’s best to listen to each one separately, rather than ploughing all the way through. When you do that, you realise how concentrated and full of vitality Weir’s music is.