British composer Julia Usher has made a name for herself around the regional music festivals in Britain, as well as running a publishing company in partnership with Enid Luff. Usher is also a music therapist, and the theme behind the principal work on Metier’s new issue is the healing power of music. Sacred Physic (2001), styled ‘a dramatic monologue’ but described in the composer’s notes as a ‘miniature solo opera’, derives its title and premise from Shakespeare’s Pericles . The role of the playwright’s ‘King’ Pericles is taken by the cello – strongly played by Jonathan Price – who opens the ten-movement piece with an impassioned threnody for his daughter Marina, whom he believes is dead. What follows in this sequence of laments, histories and arias is a narrative of how Marine, taking with deliberation the role of sacred physician, is found and re-introduced to her father. After a ‘Dramatic quartet’ – involving also the oboist Nikki Bloomfield and recorderist John Turner – in which the moment of revelation comes, the final ‘Trio and Close’ closes out in that bittersweet way that so many of Shakespeare’s expressions of joy often do (‘Put me to present pain, lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me o’erbear the shores of my mortality…’). Lesley-Jane Rogers sings the complex role very effectively, with a feel for the inherent drama of the work, though this is true no less of the instrumental roles as well. While it is a nicely balanced chamber piece, I did feel that scoring Sacred Physic as an often sparely textured quintet perhaps undersold the drama a little, particularly in the final measures where larger forces might have amplified the work’s resolution.
No such quibbles affect the remaining items on the disc. The six-span 1981 suite for unaccompanied oboe (doubling cor anglais) A Reed in the Wind has received many performances since winning the Wangford Music Prize and is now a frequently used test piece. A set of variations (or, rather, miniature movements) based on the ancient tune The Western Wynde , each derives its character from a famous Mediterranean wind: Mistral, Scirocco, Zephyr, Bora, Khamsin and Harmattan. Usher has used multiphonics, however, not to set traps for would-be virtuosi but ‘to suggest the eerie freedom of the blowing winds’, most tellingly perhaps in the opening of the depiction of the Scirocco, or of the Bora.
…there is some excellent music-making to be found, not least in the piano piece Before Light Ends dedicated to the memory of her former teacher, the much-overlooked Robert Sherlaw Johnson. Composed in 2001 for his memorial service in Oxford, this is, I think, the most moving and brilliant items of the disc, one that clearly reflects the great affection of its composer as well as evoking the style of its subject’s own all too-neglected compositions.
The ever-reliable Peter Lawson turns in a wonderful account, and is heard in all the remaining pieces on the disc, the major one being the suite for recorders and piano Le Isole della Laguna (1984), depicting the islands of the Venetian lagoon, Three atmospheric tone poems constitute this suite, depicting the Byzantine church at Torcello as well as the monastery of San Francesco and – it sounds to me – the birds that fly about them… What is the Price of Experience? Is an arrangement made in 2001 of a selection – ‘the central focus’ – of Usher’s 1987 oratorio A Grain of Sand in Lambeth. …it captures the essence of Blake’s verses very finely indeed, reminding me forcibly of the music of Elizabeth Maconchy. The closing Invocation: Poor Naked Wretches’ (2001) was written to make use of the performers brought together for this disc and sets another text by Shakespeare(a long-standing obsession on Usher’s), this time from the blasted heath of King Lear. Here she makes a virtue of the disparate textures (also singer – the oboist Nikki Bloomfield – recorder, piano and a rainstick wielded by Usher herself)that so elude her at the close of Sacred Physic. The performances throughout are excellent, as is Metier’s sound, clear and crystal like the Mediterranean.