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NMC has been recording and promoting music from the British Isles since 1989, and over the past quarter-century has notched up some impressive statistics: 220 hours of new music by 268 composers, reaching audiences in 142 territories. Opera forms a core part of NMC’s catalogue, with 18 titles by some of the biggest names in the field, including Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Gerald Barry, Judith Weir and Thea Musgrave.

The latest three releases fall under NMC’s Anniversary Opera Series and form a nicely contrasted trio: Birtwistle’s Gawain, Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom and Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest – each representing a different regional identity within the British Isles.

Gawain is given in its 1994 revised version, recorded live by BBC Radio Three at the Royal Opera House. Francois Le Roux is Gawain opposite John Tomlinson as the indefatigable Green Knight and his alter ego Bertilak de Hautdesert. It’s a listening experience that’s not for the faint-hearted: from the first downbeat, Birtwistle’s music pins you to the spot with its densely scored, dissonant harmonies and dramatic, sinewy vocal lines. It’s an unnerving world of shifting moods that rarely resolve or settle, with characters that seem driven by a kind of hysteria. The moral design of the original legend, in which valour and courage are put to the test, is given a dystopic spin by music that emphasises the shadowy aspects of human nature over these ideals.

Despite this complexity, however, there are also moments when Birtwistle’s attempts at word-painting border on the over-simplistic. His use of the woodblock to portray the sound of horses’ hooves, for example, has an almost comical effect – think Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Similarly, the upward glissandi that imitate the swish of the Green Knight’s axe bring a note of absurdity to what should be a dramatic high point of the opera.

If it’s tiring to listen to, it must have been a marathon to perform. The cast put in sterling efforts across the board, but it is Tomlinson’s Green Knight/Bertilak that really carries the performance. His emotionally charged, rich-toned account is a tour de force. Marie Angel as Morgan le Fay, regularly interjecting from the sidelines, also makes her mark, and Anne Howells as Lady de Hautdesert manages to be genuinely seductive as she attempts to lure Gawain into the Green Knight’s trap. Their scenes together in Act II offer some rare moments of gentleness and intimacy in a work otherwise dominated by highly charged histrionics. Elgar Howarth leads the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a suitably high-octane reading of Birtwistle’s score while (mostly) allowing the singers to come through the rich textures. Greater clarity might have been achieved in the studio, but it’s worth making this compromise to capture the energy and atmosphere of the live performance. The opera’s final climax is truly terrifying.

Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom tells three self-contained stories based on Scottish folktales – ‘seen together,’ writes the composer, ‘they form a continuous narrative about one particular marriage.’ Commissioned for Glasgow’s 1990 City of Culture celebrations, this recording was made at London’s Barbican by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The whole opera only lasts 80 minutes and the three stories cover plenty of ground. The result is fast-paced story-telling with little time for reflective soliloquys by the five main protagonists, who switch roles from one ‘act’ to the next. Each tale is strongly characterised with its own music, and the Trittico- like variety means that interest never flags. Weir’s dramatic use of the chorus is particularly impressive: at times they form a cohesive unit to voice social prejudices, but can also create more colouristic effects.

Identifiably ‘Scottish’ influences run through Weir’s score – from more obviously reel-like fiddle playing to aspects of form and structure that may not immediately strike the listener (but are helpfully detailed in Weir’s own notes for the CD booklet). This gives the opera a distinctive voice, yet never becomes an academic exercise. Moreover, while the orchestra, chorus and soloists all have plenty to do, Weir’s textures never become muddy thanks to the excellent engineering and superb performances. Brabbins leads a well-paced reading that follows every twist and turn of Weir’s colourful score. Soprano Anna Stéphany and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu give particularly strong performances in the final tale, which ends with a satisfying twist that leaves the heroine triumphant over her would-be tormentor.

Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest received its world premiere less than three years ago, but already seems to have achieved the status of a contemporary classic. This riotous recording by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Thomas Adès is sure to help its fame and popularity spread.

Wilde’s play has inspired outrageous inventiveness on Barry’s part. The composer’s deft shifts of mood, style and orchestral colour produce a seemingly chaotic whirlwind of sound that illuminates the neurotic inner lives of Wilde’s characters without ever losing the thread of what’s going on. The result is genuinely funny – even (indeed especially) Barry’s most avant-garde effects that in other contexts could be alienating, or just plain boring.

The mind boggles as to how any singer can manage to memorise and execute Barry’s fiendish vocal parts, but Adès’ cast more than rises to the challenge. It’s a true ensemble effort, though if pushed to pick a stand-out performance, the pyrotechnics of soprano Barbara Hannigan as Cecily are pretty unbeatable.

Owen Mortimer Read the full review on Agora Classica


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