‘The Art of Chamber Music’ (Judith Weir Weekend, 19 Jan)

Judith Weir (c) Chris ChristodolouThe Schubert Ensemble (so named because their basic line-up is that of the ‘Trout’ Quintet) played music by Judith Weir and others, as part of the BBC’s Judith Weir Weekend, ‘Telling the Tale’.

Yet again – another concert, another nice old church… 

LSO St Luke’s’ is a small but magnificent 18th-century church by Nicholas Hawksmoor, marooned in a run-down area of East London and left roofless and derelict until rescued by the London Symphony Orchestra as their rehearsal space.  Very nice.

The trouble with Judith Weir is that, next to hers, everyone else’s music tends to sound woolly and self-indulgent.  Not so Martin Butler (a recently discovered enthusiasm of mine!), whose American Rounds came across as neat, colourful, energetic and fun.  Based on different genres of American folk music, its four movements were delightful, in Martin Butler’s charming laid-back idiom – mostly sort of pan-diatonic (imagine, for example, playing everything on the white notes of the piano but not necessarily in conventional chords), the second movement in particular full of tight irregular rhythms that at times reminded me of Martinů.  His trick of ending each movement with a throwaway quiet finish on a solo instrument was very engaging.  The piece will resound in my memory.

Then Judith Weir’s Music for 247 Strings (she has such a gift for titles! – 243 in the grand piano, four on the violin) – a bit of a ‘one-trick’ piece – quirky stops and starts, rhythmic unisons with occasional outbursts of temperament – but great fun.  A little folk arrangement, Arise, You Slumbering Sleepers, was followed by her Piano Quartet of 2000, broad, deep and hypnotic.

After the interval, David KnottsOn Such A Night As This Is! (an awkward title, unexplained in the programme notes) took a fun approach to bees, cattle and earwigs, tailored to the personalities of the players in the Schubert Ensemble.  As my bro commented, it did sound a bit like a Judith Weir imitation;  but it was a bit too pleased with itself and didn’t quite know when to stop – neither of which criticisms could ever be levelled at Judith’s own works.

What was I saying about Judith Weir’s flair for titles?  How could one not love a piece called What Sound Will Chase Elephants Away? for two double basses?  I say no more.

Then an early work with yet another brilliant title, The Art of Touching The Keyboard (an ‘over-literal’ translation of the title of Couperin’s 1716 harpsichord tutor, L’art de toucher le clavecin). And a brilliant piece too (from 1983), performed by its dedicatee, William Howard.  An unassuming but astonishing compendium of the sounds that can be coaxed from the piano by, as ever, the simplest of means.

The concert ended with Weaver of Grass, by Piers Hellawell.  A rich and interesting piece, with jazzy moments – but hardly its fault if it failed to register with me in comparison with Judith’s works.

Congratulations, Judith, on a most welcome and fascinating weekend of your music.  I only wish I could have got to more of it.  Proud to know you! 

(What’s the feminine of The Master?) 

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photo (c) Chris Christodoulou, from Chester Novello’s Judith Weir webpage — thanks

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