On Buying a Horse


Much loved mezzo-soprano, Susan Bickley, and fast-rising stars Ailish Tynan and Andrew Kennedy perform songs written by one of Britain’s leading composers, Judith Weir

With works ranging from minature to epic, these songs showcase the originality and talent of one of music’s great storytellers. Superbly accompanied by Iain Burnside, these strong performances masterfully bring together Weir’s diverse range of literary and musical influences from many international sources, including China, Africa and Serbia as well as her native Scotland.


What people are saying

"Few living composers can be so original, so intellectually rich, so many layered" The Independent 

"She is mistress of the momentary epic, of tragedy at a glance" The Observer

"A superb anthology"  The Sunday Herald

Susan Bickley, Andrew Kennedy,
Ailish Tynan, Iain Burnside

Release date:1st Nov 2006
Order code:SIGCD087
Barcode: 635212008720

Gramophone Magazine, January 2007

Proof that here is one composer who can bring out the best in performers

The spin-off from the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Voices has a lot going for it, and it would be marvellous if more of the less-than-mainstream repertory that the channel promotes were to find its way onto CD so speedily – especially when the composer who features is one who, like Judith Weir, brings out the very best in musical performers. The survey of Weir’s vocal music is dominated by Susan Bickley’s perfectly judged performances of five pieces, ranging from a deliciously forthright King Harald’s Saga (1979) to the sonorous cycle written for Alice Coote, The Voice of Desire (2003). Here, as in the tricky Songs from the Exotic (1987), Ian Burnside is an ideally responsive partner. As for the Saga: even if you have the fine Albany version (8/06), you need this one too, I don’t warm to every instance of folklike tunes set against rather repetitive and at times downright deconstructive accompanimental patterns, and Andrew Kennedy doesn’t seem completely at ease with the Caledonian accent required for Scotch Minstrelsy. Nor was it a good idea to (re)set the text of Schubert’s Ständchen to the kind of tune one of his German predecessors like Reichardt or Zumsteeg might have dreamed up, then bringing out in the accompaniment those birdsong effects which Schubert himself shunned. But these are minor quibbles, and the attractions of the disc are reinforced as Ailish Tynan brings vivid character and great vocal sophistication to the operatic aspirations of A Spanish Liederbooklet. Incidentally, you’ll look in vain for an indication of who, exactly, sings what.

Arnold Whittall

The Guardian, 1st December 2006 ****

From the brilliant, typically quirky King Harald’s Saga of 1979, in which the soprano has to assume a variety of roles including singing a duet with herself and standing in for a whole chorus, to the four songs that make up the 2003 cycle The Voice of Desire, in which poems by Keats, Hardy and Bridges are set alongside a Yoruba huntsmen’s song, Judith Weir’s music for voice and piano makes a diverting sequence.

Nothing is ever quite what it seems in these apparently guileless settings, and Weir’s characteristically skewed and spare narratives, to which the accompaniments often add a gently subversive edge, tweak the ambiguities further.

Weir’s fascination with folk song, whether from her native Scotland or from much further afield, surfaces regularly, as does her love of Oriental texts. The exquisite Ox Mountain Was Covered by Trees, written in 1991 to mark the demise of Kent Opera, is a Confucian meditation from the 5th century BC on the folly of deforestation; all Weir’s art as a song writer is encapsulated in its five-minute span. Along with pianist Iain Burnside, the performances by mezzo Susan Bickley, soprano Ailish Tynan and tenor Andrew Kennedy match the jewel-like clarity of the songs.

Andrew Clements

International Record Review, December 2006

This release is another fruit of what appears to be an occasional ongoing collaborations between Signum Classics and BBC Radio 3, which has already seen recitals by John Mark Ainsley and Sarach Connolly. In the present case, we are offered 23 tracks and over an hour of music, and I for one, who tend to think of Judith Weir as a frugal rather than prodigal composer, was surprised to discover how much she has written in this medium. (And the present release does not include, for instance, her major orchestral song-cycle for Jessye Norman, woman.life.song, long overdue for a recording.)

Much less of a surprise was to discover how splendidly inventive, witty, even charming Weir can be when writing for just voice and piano (piano parts definitely not excluded!). In fact, you could almost say the more exotic the poem or text, the more her musical imagination seems to be triggered into life. Scottish folk poetry, particularly as explored in the five songs of Scotch Minstrelsy (1982), written originally for Neil Mackie, taps into her own ancestry and perhaps does not qualify as exotic, though it is certainly the case that her neatly elliptical settings point up the sometimes eerie side of the poems, as does the tenor Andrew Kennedy in his immaculately articulate performance. Susan Bickley’s nicely dark-hued mezzo gets the lioness’s share with Songs from the Exotic, and The Voice of Desire, four songs on avian subjects originally written for Alice Coote, again with a slightly quirky underside. Then, entirely on her own, she gets to sing, or rather perform, Weir’s miniature classic, her opera for solo voice King Harald’s Saga, a piece whose praises I sang in these columns when reviewing another recent excellent version, by the American soprano Judith Kellock. Suffice it to say the Bickley offers a softer, perhaps more lyrical version, dramatically and vocally, than Kellock’s and the pioneering version by the works dedicatee, Jane Manning.

The Irish soprano Ailish Tynan has a smaller share of the disc: accompanied by Iain Burnside she gets to sing three high-lying songs in Castilian, deceptively but disarmingly and with a nice nod to Hugo Wolf, labelled A Spanish Liederbooklet. She also gets to join Bickley in one number: Ox Mountain was Covered by Trees, originally in 1990 a trio with orchestra but here transformed into a female duet, is the longest item here, a poignant realization of a sad prose text by Confucius: the voices, with Burnside who is his usual immaculate and sympathetic self at the keyboard, combine to exquisite effect in this moving meditation on the wanton destruction perpetrated by man on nature. There are full texts, and translations where required, spot-on notes in English from both composer and pianist, and artist biographies; the recording quality is excellent. The booklet is unhelpfully silent on who sings what, but this review should assist. Recommended not just to Weir enthusiasts but to a much wider listenership.

Piers Burton-Page

MusicWeb, December 2006

Judith Weir is “the Gabriel Garcia Márques of song”, writes Ian Burnside. She’s probably the finest story-teller among British composers, for her gift is to write intriguing miniatures that expand outwards into vistas accessible only in the imagination. For example, “On buying a Horse” gives seemingly straightforward advice about what to look for when buying a horse. If its markings are wrong “tear off his hide and feed him to the crows”. But why and why such savagery? Weir compounds the mystery by fragmenting the repeat of this striking phrase, when, after the words, “feed him to the …”, she jumbles dislocated words “Foot, feet, nose” before returning to the obvious “crows”. It’s as if the song fragments before your ears. It’s highly disturbing and might be vividly expressed in film.

An even better example is In the lovely village of Nevesinje from the three Songs from the Exotic. Of the three short songs that make up this small group, it is outstanding because it’s so full of drama and mystery. Why is the village of Nevesinje so lovely? Bucolic the song is not because it’s about a violent curse following what appears to have been a murder. The Serbian names and place names are pronounced very arcanely. The curse, which has something to do with changing sex, is sent in a letter to Bey Pivlyanahin, who receives it and starts to dictate a reply. But then the song ends, leaving us hanging, at a critical moment. Almost equally well known is The Romance of Count Arnaldos, set to a 15th/16th century Spanish text. The Count spies, quite by chance, a ship at sea, whose commander can sing the winds calm. The sailor tells him that he only tells the secret to those who sail away with him.

The songs in Scotch Minstrelsy may not have that same under-current, pulling them towards distant, unknown territory. Nonetheless, Weir intuits the fey beneath the dour exterior of Scottish ballads. Two nice middle class ladies build a bower in the open air to escape the plague, but it gets them anyway. Bonny James Campbell goes out on his horse, but it returns without him. Similarly, King Harald’s Saga is a quirky update on ancient sagas, mired as they are in myth and mystery. It’s interesting because it’s an early example of Weir’s work in music-theatre. She’s gone on to become one of the foremost, and most idiosyncratic British opera composers, her Silver Tassie and Blond Eckbert being very highly regarded. King Harald’s Saga, however, is a self-contained star turn. It’s a one singer music-drama which places huge demands on the solo singer. Bickley demonstrates her acting as well as her singing skills. Moreover, the songs are technically demanding, stretching Bickley to feats of technical agility.

The Voice of Desire is the most recent cycle in this set, written only in 2003 for Alice Coote, a singer with a strong personality and distinctive voice to match. It’s also in many ways the most innovative of all the pieces on this recording. The piano part is more dominant, struggling against the voice and making it respond more vigorously. It’s also more integrated musically and texturally, and needs, more than the other cycles, to be understood as a single unit. Mysteries now aren’t something beyond distant horizons, but internal. In the last section, the singer can’t comprehend why her pet dove had died in captivity. After all, it no longer lived alone in the forest, and she fed it and bound its feet with silken thread. She just can’t figure out what the bird had to grieve for.

Susan Bickley is something of a specialist in new English song, and appreciates Weir’s idiom very well. Ailish Tynan’s diction is clear and pure, as is Andrew Kennedy’s. And of course, there are few pianists as adventurous and fond of new material than Ian Burnside. Thus this is a thoroughly enjoyable recording, even though comparative recordings are thin on the ground. One day, though, perhaps, this music might be re-interpreted with less elegant, and more gutsy voices, but until then, this will be the one to listen to. Weir is far too significant a composer not to listen to, in any form.

Anne Ozorio

Classic FM Magazine, January 2007, ***

Scottish composer Judith Weir suggests it’s ‘songs that make the musical world go round’ and asks why new music composers don’t often write them these days. Weir has always taken an interest – King Harald’s Saga, a mini opera in which one singer takes all the roles was one of her formative successes, while cycles like Scotch Minstrelsy and The Voice of Desire show her keeping faith. As always Weir’s ingenious technique and imagination is impressive, but her self-conscious stylisation and slightly prim sense of humour can be an acquired taste. The performances are sympathetic to their core though.

Phillip Clark

The Sunday Times, 31st December 2006, ****

Word-setting is so fundamental to Weir’s approach that this disc of songs and song cycles – produced by Radio 3’s Voices – is an epitome of her oeuvre. She writes with an economy and a sensitivity that deserve comparison to Britten’s, and Schubert is often in the background. In the piano pare of the wonderful Scotch Minstrelsy (excellently sung by Kennedy), he is in the foreground, too; and Weir has reset the Rellstab text of his famous Ständchen affectingly. The Voice of Desire, Songs from the Exotic and A Spanish Liederbooklet are fine achievements, and the solo "opera" King Harald’s Saga (Bickley) is unique.

Paul Driver

The Daily Telegraph, 27th January 2007
Classical CD of the Week

Judith Weir may have made her mark with her operas, but her songs, too, tell dramatic tales of their own. Indeed, in King Harald’s Saga – her three act, 10-minute opera for unaccompanied soprano – the two media combine. This absorbing collection places that early work among more recent songs, from her settings of Border ballads in Scotch Minstrelsy (1982) ti the avian cycle The Voice of Desire (2003).

Weir’s language may be unadventurous in terms of the grand scheme of contemporary music, but it never takes the obvious route, which means that every phrase catches the ear, while her approach to setting poetry is surely some of the most imaginative since Britten.

This disc, one of a continuing series produced in connection with BBC radio 3’s Voices programme, is a treat from beginning to end, with Susan Bickley, Andrew Kennedy and Ailish Tynan each bringing out both the depths and the quirkiness of Weir’s chosen texts and the range of her eminently singable vocal lines. The projects progenitor, Iain Burnside, brings the Lieder-partner touch to Weir’s inventive keyboard writing.

Matthew Rye

BBC Music Magazine, February 2007
Performance ****, Sound ***

Judith Weir always seems to stand, in that lovely phrase of EM Forster about the poet Cavafy, ‘at a slight angle to the universe’. And that applies conspicuously to her songs, in which vocal lines seemingly derived from the folk ballads of the world and familiar-sounding piano figures never quite cohere into the phrases and cadences and climaxes that they imply. But this matches the elusive fables to which she’s drawn for many of her texts: not for nothing does Iain Burnside in an engaging note call her ‘a magic realist’. Of the three singers on this disc from Radio 3’s ‘Voices’ series, Susan Bickley brings off equally well the diverse folklore of Songs from the Exotic, the cycle The Voice of Desire with its various prescient birds, and the remarkable unaccompanied King Harald’s Saga, a three-act opera with a cast of thousands. Andrew Kennedy’s light tenor sails pleasingly through the dark deeds of Scotch Minstrelsy, but Ailish Tynan doesn’t quite catch the Iberian inflections implicit in the vocal lines of the delightfully named) Spanish Liederbooklet. Iain Burnside’s piano playing is always supportive and characterful. The recording occasionally affords the piano more presence than the voice, but it’s generally clear.

Anthony Burton

The Sunday Herald, 11th February 2007

‘It is songs, on the whole, that make the musical world go round; but ‘contemporary classical’ composers don’t seem to write them very much these days. When I was writing the many parts of this collection, I felt I was taking a holiday from the world of new music to practise an ancient craft’.

So begins Judith Weir’s personal introduction to this fascinating collection of her compositions for voice and piano. Songs of course, are only one aspect of Weir’s remarkable originality. Through them however, her music speaks in an entirely individual manner, drawing the listener into a personal world of story telling, mystery and magic. Although English by birth, she has particularly strong Scottish connections. Appointments to Glasgow University where she taught composition, and to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music as Composer in Residence were early indications of the exceptional career lying ahead. Visiting professorships at Oxford, Princeton and Harvard were to follow. Since those emergent Scottish days, twenty or so years ago, a continuous flow of works for orchestra, small ensemble, solo instrument, music theatre and, perhaps above all, opera, have increasingly identified Weir as one of the most inventive and dramatic composers of our day.

For her songs, history, myth and legend are where she finds inspiration. Tales of fairies ‘ravishing away’ a Hebridean baby, sinister diablerie making short work of a Scottish Elf-Knight and his murderous intent, or the saga of Norwegian King Harald and his doomed 1066 invasion of England with defeat at the battle of Stamford Bridge, just 19 days before the battle of Hastings and the successful Norman invasion, are typical of her favoured texts.

This disc, drawn from Radio 3’s Voices series, and planned by presenter and inspirational accompanist, pianist Iain Burnside, presents an enthralling programme which traces the composer’s song output from 1979 to 2003. Of the 3 singers, mezzo soprano Susan Bickley provides the most interesting performances, sensitively capturing the essence of the quirky folksong influences in Songs from the Exotic, (a group of four inspired by the traditions of Serbia, Spain and Scotland) and the enlightened, high-flown avian opinions described in The Voice of Desire (conversations in the St Francis manner between bird and human) Her performance of the incredibly demanding King Haraldâs Saga, a three act, 14 minute, operatic tour de force for unaccompanied soprano, is nothing short of miraculous. Soprano Ailish Tynan sounds a shade uneasy with the 16th century Romances of A Spanish Liederbooklet, seeming never to quite relax with Weir’s melodic but searching vocal lines, while tenor Andrew Kennedy makes light and very engaging work of the rather dark and murky tales of Weir’s Scotch Minstrelsy and the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek eponymous On Buying a Horse (If his markings are not up to scratch "Take off his hide and feed him to the crows!") Throughout this imaginative recital Iain Burnside’s perceptive, lieder-like accompaniments, constantly enhance the total experience. A superb anthology.

  1. On buying a horse – – [2.26]
  2. Ox Mountain was Covered by Trees – – [4.05]
  3. Songs from the Exotic – I. Sevdalino, my little one – – [1.41]
  4. – II. In the lovely village of Nevesinje – – [3.06]
  5. – III. The romance of Count Arnaldos – – [2.24]
  6. – IV. The song of the girl ravished away by the fairies in South Uist – – [2.03]
  7. Scotch Minstrelsy – I. Bessie Bell and Mary Gray – – [3.57]
  8. – II. Bonnie James Campbell – – [2.26]
  9. – III. Lady Isobel and the Elf-knight – – [2.03]
  10. – IV. The gypsy laddie – – [3.04]
  11. – V. The braes of Yarrow – – [1.55]
  12. The Voice of Desire – I. The voice of desire – – [4.05]
  13. – II. White eggs in the bush – – [2.48]
  14. – III. Written on terrestial things – – [3.19]
  15. – IV. Sweet little red feet – – [1.26]
  16. A Spanish Liederbooklet – I. Romance de fonte-frida – – [4.07]
  17. – II. Romance de rosa fresca – – [2.34]
  18. – III. Seranilla de la zarzuela – – [2.09]
  19. King Harald’s Saga – Act I – – [4.19]
  20. – Act II – – [3.22]
  21. – Act III – – [4.34]
  22. – Epilogue – – [1.30]
  23. St?ndchen – – [3.15]
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