Superb performances of chamber and vocal works by David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu on a highly recommendable release from Metier

The Classical Reviewer: Superb performances of chamber and vocal works by David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu on a highly recommendable release from Metier

Superb performances of chamber and vocal works by David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu on a highly recommendable release from Metier

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David Lumsdaine (b. 1931) was born in Australia and
studied at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music before moving to
England. In London he studied composition with Lennox Berkeley at the Royal
Academy of Music. After taking a position as lecturer at Durham University he
went on to become a senior lecturer at King’s College London. In 1979 he
married the composer Nicola LeFanu. David Lumsdaine’s compositions range across
choral, vocal, orchestral, ballet, instrumental and chamber music.  
Nicola LeFanu (b. 1947) was born in England, the
daughter of William LeFanu and the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. She studied at
Oxford, the Royal College of Music and, as a Harkness Fellow, at Harvard. From
1994 to 2008 she was Professor of Music at the University of York and has
taught composition at Kings’ College London. She has also directed Morley
College Music Theatre. LeFanu has Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of
Durham, Aberdeen and Open University and is an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s
College Oxford. She is also a Fellow of the Royal College of Music and a Fellow
of Trinity College London. In 2015 she was awarded the Elgar bursary, which
carries a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society for BBC Symphony
Orchestra. Nicola LeFanu’s compositions include operas and music theatre,
choral, vocal, orchestral, chamber and instrumental music.
Nicola LeFanu’s Invisible
Places in 16 continuous
sections, for clarinet and string quartet, is in
sixteen small movements that play continuously. The composer tells us that the
starting point for this work was Italo Calvino’s (1923-1985) Invisible Cities, offering a model of
how to create a continuous narrative through tiny, discontinuous ideas. But it
is Calvino’s book, The Great Khan
that senses the nightmare of our ‘brave new world.’ Damaris Wollen and the
Brindisi String Quartet gave the first performance in 1986.
The clarinet brings a questioning motif, developed by the
strings through some lovely ideas and textures, the clarinet adding some fine
colours and tones. We are taken through a subtly faster section, an atmospheric
movement for clarinet where the soloist achieves some terrific sounds before the
strings bring a slow and thoughtful section, interrupted by more abrasive
Pizzicato phrases hurtle by before the clarinet joins. There
are hesitant string chords with clarinet phrases bubble forth between gentler,
flowing moments. Midway the music finds a spaciousness as the clarinet appears
over string chords, swirling and soaring, often becoming shrill. The strings
hurtle aggressively forward before finding a gentler nature. There are repeated
pizzicato chords out of which a melody arises with the clarinet bringing a high
long note out of which develops some bird like phrases as the theme is taken
through some brilliantly lithe passages.
Stronger string chords are followed by atmospheric
harmonies, the opening idea re-occurs bringing more passion. The clarinet is
heard as the strummed string chords are played. There are more passionate
pizzicato phrases before a gentler, fast moving idea for strings and clarinet
that darts around quickly with outbursts. The clarinet and strings weave some
lovely moments before the strings bring strident, pounding chords. The strings dart
around, joined by clarinet until slowing into the final section to find a quite
beautiful coda.
This is a work that takes the listener on a tremendous journey,
packing so much in its sixteen minutes.
David Lumsdaine’s fire
in leaf and grass
for soprano and clarinet was composed in 1991and takes a
text by Denise Levertov. It was written for a Gemini concert, on the occasion
of the composer’s 60th birthday, at St. John’s, Smith Square, London, UK. Soprano,
Sarah Leonard alone brings the first line, ‘The fire in leaf and grass’ before
being joined by the clarinet of Ian Mitchell with a plangent line that soon
becomes more animated. Sarah Leonard brings a beautifully shaped, superbly
animated performance with the clarinet adding colour and descriptive ideas, bringing
a real sense of a snatched moment in time.
Sarah Leonard and Ian
Mitchell are joined by cellist,
Sophie Harris for Nicola LeFanu’s Trio
II: Song for Peter
that takes texts by Emily Dickinson, Anton Chekhov, Ted
Hughes and Sara Teasdale in order to, in the composer’s words ‘give different
perspectives to perennial thoughts about time and mortality.’
Sarah Leonard bursts out with a series of declaimed ‘Ah’s’
showing her great vocal strength and agility in this taxing part. The clarinet
slowly and gently joins as the soprano continues with the text with almost sprechgesang
delivery. The cello joins as the vocal line becomes more melodic, all three
developing some terrific passion. LeFanu uses the clarinet and cello alone to
bring moments of intense feeling, a sense of isolation and loss. When the soprano
rejoins she adds even more desolate feeling. Both instrumentalists bring a
terrific dialogue in their solo passages. There is a particularly intense
passage at the words ‘Like rain it sounded…’ with a technical accuracy and
mastery from these three performers that is remarkable. The setting moves through
more passages of great intensity, passages of deeper richness for the
instrumentalists over which the soprano rises bringing more tremendous vocal
control. There are some superb instrumental details as we move through moments
of gently intense emotion before rising in agitation at the words ‘No more shall
white cranes wake and cry’ before the soprano brings the sense of loss to an end.
All three performers are quite superb in this hauntingly
intense work.
In 1975, David
composed his solo piano piece, Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’, a meditation on the final chorus from the
St. Matthew Passion. He returned to this work in 1978 when Gemini asked him to
compose a work for them, extending it into
Mandala 3
for piano, flute, clarinet, viola and cello, a work that lasts
some forty minutes. The Sanskrit word Mandala
is difficult to define but in general refers to a spiritual and ritual symbol. Here
pianist, Aleksander Szram is joined by Gemini members, Ileana Ruhemann
(flute/alto flute), Catriona Scott (clarinet), Caroline Balding (viola) and
Sophie Harris (cello) with conductor Ian Mitchell (Chinese gong).
In three parts I
brings a transcription of the original chorus in the style of a
classical quintet that flows beautifully, Lumsdaine’s instrumentation adding
some lovely lines and textures before suddenly stopping as we go into II sonata where the theme tries to move
ahead hesitantly.
A Chinese gong is heard as the music finds a more emotional
edge, slowly making its way forward through some quite beautiful yet unusual
harmonies and ideas. There are flutter tongue flute phrases and pizzicato cello
yet the piano tries to bring Bach’s theme through the texture. The gong is
heard again as the instrumentalists weave some wonderful harmonies and sounds
before rising through a terrific passage with a loud gong stroke. Lumsdaine
creates some remarkable ideas as again the piano brings the Bach theme but is
overtaken by the others. The instrumentalists blend in some passionate moments
where one can hear a Bachian presence only to find a gentle end with a gong
stroke before dissolving into the opening of the piano piece, Ruhe sanfte to
bring the final and longest section, III
The piano appears with a gong stroke, slowly and gently
moving ahead, growing ever quieter before rising again to take the theme
forward, developing some very fine sonorities. The strings quietly and slowly
enter as the piano takes the theme ahead through a series of variations, a
hesitant piano part against pizzicato viola, flowing through richer textures
and broadly spaced phrases. There are anguished moments where pianist,
Aleksander Szram brings some impressive moments. Often there is an eastern
meditative quality yet punctuated by more dynamic and fragmented passages.
Later the other instrumentalists are quietly heard around the piano before sudden
faster flights of fancy occur. This pianist brings some beautifully fluent
touches with the other instrumentalists bringing lovely gentle sonorities and
textures around the piano. There are some particularly impressive broad piano
phrases and Bach appears momentarily. There are further moments where Gemini add
wonderful harmonies and sonorities over fine piano phrases that grow in stature
and complexity and, indeed, dynamics. After a peak, Bach’s lovely theme emerges
behind disjointed piano lines causing a harmonic clash. The piano grows louder
as if to squash the Bach theme, hammering out the notes, but Bach continues
regardless, the piano is silenced and the other instruments are left to gently
work around the theme. The piano re-joins as all move through strange, gentle
harmonies until a hushed end is reached on a final piano chord.
This is a remarkable, tantalising piece full of wonderful
All of the performances are superb; the recording is
excellent as are the notes from the composers that include full English texts
within a nicely illustrated booklet all of which makes this new release highly

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