A new release from Metier brings chamber and vocal works by David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu all performed by members of the chamber ensemble, Gemini, directed by Ian Mitchell with soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Aleksander Szram
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 moments.
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 Lumsdaine 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 chorale 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 fantasia.
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 ideas.
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 recommendable.