Written as a leaving present for the departing Head of Spitalfieds Festival, Judith Serota, in 2007, Variations for Judith was the idea of the then Artistic Director, Diana Burrell. The set comprises a series of short variations by a collection of composers, themselves former Artistic Directors of the festival, written in response to Stolzel’s Bist du bei mir, found in Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook and sees the lyrical aria reflected and refracted through the lenses of eleven composers.
Anthony Burton’s Breaking Away begins the series confidently enough with a pianistic harmonised version of the opening gesture, but then pauses, as if uncertain; a fragment of a later shape appears high in the treble register, displaced into a different key; this debate between conflicting registers and tonalities continues, with each area endeavouring, very calmly, to assert its authority; each time the bass is about to cadence, it stops and the right-hand interrupts. The issue is never resolved, and the piece ends delicately poised in mid-air.
The following variation from Stephen Johns, entitled ‘Spitalfield Echoes’ is reflective, almost
Copland-esque with shades of the broad opening of Billy the Kid; it contrasts with the bold dissonances of Antony Payne’s variation, ‘Loose Canon for Jude,’ which pits the melody against several transposed versions of itself. Burrell’s own variation is a series of flowing gestures, unfolding organically through a sinuous right-hand line, with a wonderfully elliptical cadence to conclude. Judith Weir’s tiny to Judith, from Judith sees short, brittle cluster chords clothing the melody in dialogue with bold, unexpected octaves in the left-hand that can’t help but bring a smile.
Richard Rodney Bennett’s Little Elegy is a lachrymaic incarnation of the chorale, which unfolds in stately tread with a nod to Bennett’s jazz-indebted harmonic palette.
Michael Berkeley’s miniature response begins with a later melodic gesture turned into a repeating figure that characterises the movement as a whole, ending with a final glacial chord. In contracts, Thea Musgrave’s variation presents the melody over a series of ceaseless arabesques in the left-hand, almost Debussy-esque; the piece remains true to the simplicity and rhythm of the melodic line whilst clothing it in oscillating colours as it unfolds with gentle yet unstoppable momentum. Diomedes revels in the crystalline harmonies of Tarik O’Regan, with the melodic line displaced across several octaves opening the melody out into vast architectural construct, supported by a wistful progression of chords; all of which is played with due care by Tan.
Jonathan Dove’s variation asks the question ‘Ist Bach bei mir,’ in which the melody unfurls in the bass beneath a series of radiant harmonies in the upper register, before the texture gradually opens out; ending on a first inversion tonic chord, the piece seems to answer its own question, but not emphatically. The final variation, by Peter Maxwell Davis Bist du bei mir, oder ? also poses a question in its title – are you with me, or…? – a sentiment reflected in the questing, shifting lines and uncertain harmonies which ensue. The final cadence seems to suggest a positive answer.
The set as a whole sees the aria refracted through a series of quite distinct musical personalities, yet its musical authority remains quietly in the background; each variation offers a new perspective on the theme, whilst bearing it to the fore, a factor which unifies the suite, giving it a coherent identity.
The pieces are exquisitely played by Melvyn Tan, and the recording is available as a download from NMC recordings here.
Shameless plug alert: I'll be giving a recital to include the set in a lunchtime concert in Colyer-Fergusson on Wed March 4, 2015.