Stephen Barber
MusicWeb International

This is the second disc of Judith Weir’s choral music. It follows up that of her church music on Delphian DCD30495. This time it features mainly secular works, the Missa del Cid not being a setting of the mass. There are no duplications with the earlier disc and only the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis have previously been recorded.

Judith Weir writes in an attractive idiom which will please those who enjoy the choral music of Holst and Britten. I fancy I also hear a touch of her predecessor as Master of the Queen’s Music, Peter Maxwell Davies, but in the immediately enticing modal style of his carols rather than the more daunting expressionist style of his serious orchestral works.

All the Ends of the Earth was written for a concert on 1 January 2000 to celebrate the music of Pérotin, which was (nearly) a thousand years old, Pérotin having flourished around 1200. He composed organa for male voices, the first and simplest kind of polyphonic music, in which a slow-moving plainchant melody is surrounded by faster-moving other voices. Weir’s piece is modelled on Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes, one of the most elaborate surviving pieces of organa, though to our ears it seems straightforward enough. Weir uses Pérotin’s bass, and overlays it with a setting of the Alleluyatic Sequence for high voices, with percussion and harp to accompany. A sequence was sung between the epistle and gospel in the mass and features the word Alleluia; this one was written for use just before Lent, during which Alleluia was forbidden; it celebrates the wonders of the created world. This is a very florid piece and the resultant work is ecstatic in feeling, much more so than Pérotin’s original which is merely cheerful.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were commissioned by St John’s College Cambridge for use at Anglican Evensong. Weir explains that she had had little contact with Anglican liturgy for much of her life. The result is two very fresh and inspiring settings, the first more elaborate and the second, as is appropriate, more contemplative. The result is a real addition to the repertory of church choirs and they won’t frighten the horses.

The Missa del Cid is a curious work. It is based on the successful military campaign by the tenth century Castilian nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as El Cid (the lord), to conquer some of Spain from the Moors. Each movement begins with a reciter, referred to as an Evangelist, though what he says has nothing to do with the gospel, who narrates some of the story of this campaign. Then there is a choral passage, which is sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish from the thirteenth century Cantar de Mio Cid. There are occasional fragments of the liturgy. The hero is quite sure he has God on his side. Weir wanted to explore the relationship between warfare and religion. In my view, the two fit together rather badly, compounded by the fact that the narration is spoken, giving the musical portions the effect of incidental music. I would have preferred it if one could select out the narration but this is not possible. This is by some way the earliest work here.

The Song Sung True was commissioned by the London Lawyers’ Chorus to commemorate the life of Helen Sibthorp who was one of their members. This is an elegant tribute to someone described as ‘forthright and lively’. The most considerable movement is the third, a setting of ‘Orpheus with his lute’ from Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII.

The title work is a kind of pocket version of Shakespeare’s Tempest. I quote Weir’s own summary: ‘There is a STORM at sea; some travellers are SHIPWRECKED. (The storm was caused by MAGIC.) CHARMED by a SPIRIT, they meet their long-lost relatives. Through the exercise of MERCY, their ancient quarrels are healed.’ The words in capitals are the titles of the five sections; their opening words I have added to the listing above. Weir adds trebles and a small ensemble to the basic women’s choir and her settings have a good deal of variety. It is interesting that she set only one of Ariel’s songs and that the least magical. I do hope she returns to the subject and sets the other three some time. Meanwhile this is a delightful short cantata.

The performances are as expert as you would expect, with the BBC Singers under their very experienced choral director David Hill. I did wonder at one point whether the sopranos were too strong in the Magnificat, but I was then using a small machine; on good equipment they found fine. The disc was recorded in Temple Church which has a resonant but not cavernous acoustic and there is plenty of bloom on the voices. There are brief notes on the works and full texts with translations where needed. A lovely disc.