Saturday, 14 April 2012

Voices of desire

It wasn't by design but, looking back, both of my last two posts on contemporary music have been focused on Scottish composers - James MacMillan and James Dillon. So, for luck, here's a third - though this time it's not a James!

Judith Weir is a wonderful composer, writing works that hit the spot more often with me that those by most other contemporary composers. Her fresh ear for harmony and bright, clear instrumental writing are winning features, owing something to Ravel, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Britten but sounding only like herself. She writes in a tonal language that, despite using lots of familiar melodic turns and harmonic gestures, keeps taking listeners by surprise. The word 'quirky' is inescapable. She is among the best British classical songwriters since Britten. There are many works I'd like to recommend, though my favourite is the song-cycle Natural History, which you can purchase and savour here.

As there's no YouTube link for you for that, another excellent song-cycle of Judith Weir's is The Voice of Desire. This sets a series of poems about human conversations with birds (in which the birds are wiser!) and abounds in strong melodies and shiny piano writing. As ever with this composer, an air of ironic detachment can sometimes be heard.

In the first song The Voice of Desire (setting Nightingales by Robert Bridges) I was reminded of Ravel's magical late opera L'enfant et les sortilèges, especially in the soprano part - despite the odd Brittenish melisma. The cleanness of the piano textures are a joy in themselves and her rhythms are fascinating. You will hear the nightingales sing in the piano part. This is a fantastic song, with a particularly attractive ending.  

The second song White Eggs in the Bush (setting Blue Cuckoo, a Yoruba hunting song translated by Ulli Beier) has a compelling hopping rhythm and another somewhat Ravel-like melody. It's also a fine song with a fierce climax.

The third song Written on Terrestrial Things (setting Thomas Hardy's The Darkling Thrush) glints like bright light on a bird's wings amongst the gloom. Each verse has a newly-imagined texture.

Finally comes Sweet Little Red Feet (setting I had a dove, and the sweet dove died by Keats), which is simple and likeable and yet has subtle, tricky rhythms to intrigue the listener.

Falling shorter and sweeter on the ear, you might also like Illuminare, Jerusalem - a beautiful setting of a medieval carol for unaccompanied chorus and - briefly, very quietly but tellingly at each setting of the word 'Illuminare' - organ. As in The Darkling Thrush, each of the three verses is given a different treatment - here by being distributed to contrasting sections of the choir.  

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