REVIEWS: metier msv 28565   Mandala 3

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Nicola LeFanu's Invisible Places is a magical work. Written in 1986 for clarinet solo and string quartet, this music was inspired by the Italian author Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. The composer writes that Calvino ‘offered a model of how to create a continuous narrative through many tiny, discontinuous ideas.' The music is presented in sixteen sections or small movements, which are played continually. Without access to the score it is impossible to derive interconnections between pieces and to understand the internal construction of each. However, the work is a satisfying unity, that is approachable by even the most conservative (small ‘c') of listeners. The language is modernistic, but hardly off-putting. There is much in the pages of this score that is quite lovely. The work was dedicated to a certain Hugh Sargent who commissioned it: it is not clear from the liner notes (or an Internet search) who this gentleman is.

David Lumsdaine's ‘fire in leaf and grass' is beautiful. Unfortunately, the liner notes are scanty for this piece for clarinet and soprano. The text is derived from Denise Levertov's poem ‘Living' which was published in 1967. Lumsdaine wrote his setting during August 1991, and it received its premiere at St John's Smith Square in October of that year. It is an attractive, almost impressionistic piece that perfectly matches Levertov's text with dreamy music. As an aside, I hate when titles are printed in lower case. My old English master ‘Noddy' Robertson would have had a fit, despite E.E. Cummings extensive use of it.

Trio 2: Song for Peter  sets words by a galaxy of poets: Emily Dickinson, Anton Chekhov, Ted Hughes and Sarah Teasdale (a First World War Poet). The liner notes give the sources of each text. The piece is scored for soprano, clarinet and cello. The theme of this ‘cycle' is to ‘give different perspectives to perennial thoughts about time and mortality.' This is achieved by interleaving Dickinson's mystical experience, Hughes image of a house during a storm, Teasdale's presentation a fascinating image of the world without people, and finally, Chekov who presents an image of ‘nuclear winter' when ‘all, all have gone.' There is no doubt that this is a bleak piece of music: even depressing. Yet the music explores the words with great effect. It is haunting and quite unforgettable in its impact.

The final piece in this imaginative disc is David Lumsdaine's Mandala 3 composed for an ensemble featuring piano, flute, clarinet, viola, cello and Chinese Gong. This last instrument is hit by the conductor. Mandala 3  was composed in 1978 for the present ensemble: it is the longest piece on this CD. The structure is divided into three movements: an opening chorale, which is followed by a ‘sonata' and concludes with a ‘fantasia.' The basis of the work is reflected in the first movement, which is a ‘straightforward' transcription of the final chorus from Bach's St Matthew Passion   – ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder.' This is followed by a slightly less-conventional sonata that muses over Bach's music. I found the transformation a little severe, but it does work. The final Fantasia is a curious mixture that needs to be heard to understand. Dominated by the piano, the other instruments ‘create an enfolding resonance around the piano…' The Bach chorus makes a final appearance at the end of the work. Serenity reigns.

Lumsdaine, in the liner notes, concedes that this is ‘a very odd piece.' Nevertheless, there is a powerful enchantment here that is derived from the fusion of Bach and the composer's late seventies ‘take' on it. I feel that it is an important work, even if I am not over-enthusiastic about it.

A ‘Mandala' is a symbol found in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the universe. Lumsdaine has clearly been attracted to this esoteric device: there are five works carrying this title in his current catalogue. They all feature a different line up of soloists and instrumental forces.

The CD insert could have been a little more detailed, to assist listeners who (like me) do not have the scores of these pieces in their libraries... On the other hand, each of these works stand on their own two feet: more detailed explanation may  just muddy the waters. There are detailed notes about both composers as well as brief bios of the performers.

The performance of all four works is excellent. Clearly, we do not have alternative versions for comparison, but even the least attentive hearing of this music reveals soloists and ensemble who have a huge sympathy for, and understanding of, this music.

This is a fascinating release from Métier, exploring the work of two of Britain's leading composers. This music may not be to everyone's taste, but I suggest that for ‘modern' (late-20 th   century) music this album is exceptional in the presentation of interesting, moving and often downright gorgeous music.
John France  

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.
Bruce Reader

As the warm introductory note from musical director Ian Mitchell suggests, this disc stems from friendships both music and personal; between composers David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu, and chamber ensemble Gemini. Indeed, listening to the disc is something like being party to an intimate, intelligent and far-ranging conversation among old friends.

British composer Nicola LeFanu is renowned for works of imaginative beauty, often drawing on diverse extra-musical prompts (previous pieces explore the Black Death, Edo Japan and the Arizona desert). LeFanu's Trio 2: Song for Peter (1983) for soprano, clarinet and piano is by turns fierce and meditative, pondering ideas of mortality through texts by Emily Dickinson, Checkhov, Ted Hughes and Sara Teasdale, and performed here with particular poise and fire by soprano Sarah Leonard. Invisible Places (1986) for string quartet and clarinet takes Italo Calvino's beguiling Invisible Cities as its starting point, capturing the book's seamless shifts between micro- and macrocosm in the score's inventive textural contrasts.

The central work if the disc is Australian David Lumsdaine's Mandala 3 (1978) for chamber ensemble, which proves a gloriously strange and moving piece. A ‘meditation' on the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion , the work weaves bold new lines around transcribed excerpts of Bach's score to create an affecting and mysterious piece aptly summed up by Lumsdaine: ‘It came from nowhere, and it continues to take me everywhere.' Some shaky intonation emerges in the unadorned passages of Bach, but this is otherwise a fine performance to complete this intriguing and enlightening disc. Performance 4 stars, Recording 4 stars.
Kate Wakeling

We have a set of four modern chamber compositions, two each by David Lumsdaine (b. 1931) and Nicola LeFanu (b, 1947) on the CD   Mandala 3   (Metier 28565). They are well performed by the chamber ensemble Gemini, which is directed by Ian Mitchell.

The program begins with the somewhat whimsical  LeFanu "Invisible Places, in 16 continuous sections" (1986) for clarinet and string quartet. Next follows a short "fire in leaf and grass" (1991) for soprano (Sarah Leonard) and clarinet (Ian Mitchell) by Lumsdaine. The mood is carried over to the more lengthy and involved LeFanu song cycle "Trio 2 - Song for Peter" (1983) for soprano, bass clarinet/clarinet and cello. It is an effectively moody piece in a modernist chromatic, advanced-harmonic zone.

Last but not least on the program is the forty-minute Lumsdaine work "Mandala 3" (1978) for chamber ensemble featuring Aleksander Szram on solo piano. It is an extension and flowering outward of Lumsdaine's (1975) solo piano work "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh." Both are based on the movingly beautiful final chorus of Bach's   St. Matthew Passion." Mandala 3 "  in the composer's words is a "more extended structure which further explore[s] the harmony of Bach's chorus in terms of style and layers of textures." It is all divided into three parts, the first is a transcription of the chorus as a classical quintet, which sets the tone for what follows, a sonata continuously flowing out of part one, developing the music into something still related but other, then even more modernly other. Part two dissolves into the "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh" piano section (i.e., Part three), an extended fantasia that centers on the piano rapture surrounded by the chamber ensemble that echoes, then states the chorus theme once again. Like Foss's "Baroque Variations" the classic themes are recontextualized and stylistically refigured into later style zones. But Lumsdaine does it differently and originally.

It is an eerie, masterful work both with Bach both inside it as it were, and outside of it looking in. In the end it is neither quite out of the neo-classical Bach filtered zone nor quite sturdily situated as a modern commentary. It is both and it is a joy to hear.

"Mandala 3" makes this program very desirable; the other works give much contrasting interest. In all the album provides much pleasure and a good taste of what Lumsdaine and LeFanu have been doing. I am glad to have it to repeat the experience, probably many times. Very recommended.
Grego Edwards

This disc on Metier marks two significant birthdays, Nicola LeFanu's 70th birthday in 2017 and David Lumsdaine's 85th birthday in 2016, and the disc also commemorates the long association that the ensemble Gemini has had with the music of both composers. Directed by Ian Mitchell, the ensemble is joined by soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Aleksander Szram to perform Nicola Lefanu's Invisible Places  and Trio 2: Song for Peter , and David Lumsdaine's fire in leave and grass  and Mandala 3.

Nicola Lefanu's  Invisible Places  for clarinet and string quartet (Ian Mitchell, Caroline Balding, David Angel, Yuko Inoue and Joe Cole) was written in 1986 and consists of 16 short movements lasting a total of around 16 minutes, but the movements play continuously. The inspiration behind the piece is Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities , with Lefanu in her CD booklet note crediting Calvino with providing a model of how to create a narrative based on many tiny discontinuous ideas. It is a spare and thoughtful piece, and from the opening there is a strong sense of small fragments coming together to make a whole. The strings function principally as a group, and there is a strong feeling of dialogue between them and the clarinet, and though there are moments of drama the conversation soon returns down to a more considered level. It receives a performance which is intense and very focused.

fire in leaf and grass  is a short piece by David Lumsdaine from 1991 setting a text by Denise Levertov for soprano, Sarah Leonard, and clarinet, Ian Mitchell. This is a little gem with a nearly unaccompanied soprano and clarinet part separate, the two weaving round.

Nicola Lefanu's Trio 2 - Song for Peter  was commissioned by Gemini and premiered in 1983, written for soprano, Sarah Leonard, clarinet / bass clarinet, Ian Mitchell and cello, Sophie Harries. The text weaves together lines by Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Sara Teasdale and Anton Chekhov to create series of perspectives on time and mortality. This is quite a dramatic piece with angular lines for voice and instruments, and it is a very real trio with different lines coming to the fore rather than the instruments simply accompanying the voice. There are moments of near silence and some terrific contrast of timbre and range. Perhaps it might best be described a meditation, albeit a very fierce one. With its taxing vocal and instrumental parts, it receives a wonderfully committed performance from Sarah Leonard, Ian Mitchell and Sophie Harries.

The final work on the disc is the longest, David Lumsdaine's Mandala 3.  The work has its origins in a solo piano piece of Lumsdaine's from 1975 Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh'  which he describes as a meditation on the final chorus from Bach's St Matthew Passion . In 1978, in a piece written for Gemini, he returned to the piano work to create a more extended piece. Mandala 3  is in three parts, first a transcription of Bach's chorus for the instrumental forces, this dissolves into the middle movement, a sonata, which in turn emerges into a freer fantasia. The work is written for solo piano, Aleksander Szram, flute / alto flute, Ileana Ruhemann, clarinet, Catriona Scott, viola, Caroline Balding, cello, Sophie Harris and conductor / Chinese gong Ian Mitchell.

The opening section provides the striking sound of Bach's chorale transcribed for a piano quintet, with unusual results whilst the sonata is sparer with a sense of the music being de-constructed. Here the paragraphs are punctuated by the Chinese gong, with fragments of Bach drifting in and out of focus, and a real transparency of scoring. In the fantasia the texture gets even sparer, and the solo piano frequently comes to the foreground with some intensely dramatic moments. At one point there is a long piano solo, with the Bach chorale magically floating in the background on the other instruments. David Lumsdaine in his programme note describes it as 'a very odd piece', but it is a seductively magical one too.

This disc showcases some significant music by two major contemporary composers. It also showcases a series of enduring relationships, that between Gemini and the composers, and the fact that Lumsdaine and LeFanu are married. This latter fact means that listening to the disc one is intriguingly teased as to whether there are mutual influences between them. The various players of Gemini along with their guests give powerful and committed performances.
Star rating: 4.0
Robert Hugill

A mandala (Sanskrit, circle) is a ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the universe, and the sleeve of the CD bears a modern interpretation of this. The sleeve notes indicate that it's about big topics: life, death and the other thing, as Douglas Adams wrote. Lumsdaine and LeFanu clearly like the imagery (mandalas and other imagery created for people who could not read but needed to understand concepts) and while they might be talking about the literal universe, the music circles a more central theme, whether it's a clarinet linking up discrete pieces of music in the opening track or questioning the centre of the music in the title track.

Although the album celebrates Lumsdaine's 85th and LeFanu's 70th (on 28th April), the work is recorded for the first time. It doesn't sound like the work of veterans, rather the work of rebellious youngsters.

It is “modern” so might not be to the taste of people who just want a nice bit of Mozart but then again, it's not harsh. Listening on headphones is the best way to appreciate its subtleties — silence plays a large part — and there are some gentle, even beautiful moments.

Opener Invisible Places is written for clarinet and string quartet, inspired by the Italian Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities. The book explores imagination through the descriptions of cities by Polo, who is talking to Kublai Khan. The book consists of brief poems describing 55 fictitious cities to prove the expanse of Khan's empire, but which are all just descriptions of one city, Polo's Venice. LeFanu writes in the sleeve notes that the book showed her that she could create a continuous narrative through many tiny, discontinuous ideas. This piece is thus divided into 16 movements, played fairly continually on strings, with the clarinet joining them up.

Lumsdaine's Fire In Leaf And Grass is two minutes long and features Sarah Leonard (soprano) and clarinet. Based on a poem, it's almost a folk song.

LeFanu's Trio 2: Song for Peter is set to powerful words by poets, including Emily Dickinson, Anton Chekhov and Ted Hughes. It's about life and death, so it's bleak, though there is beauty.

The closing piece is the title track, Mandala 3 , composed for piano, flute, clarinet, viola, cello and Chinese Gong, which gets bashed several times. The opening section is a chorale, and quite traditional in approach.
Jeremy Condliffe

This record sees two works of British composer Nicola LeFanu and two of the Australian musician David Lumsdaine. Of the first it presents Invisible Places , for clarinet and string quartet, and Trio 2: Song for Peter , for soprano, cello and clarinet; from the second fire in leaf and grass , for soprano and clarinet, and Mandala 3 for piano, flute, clarinet, viola and cello.

Among the four works, the first and last are definitely those that strike most decidedly; Invisible Places , dating from 1986, was written by the British musician under the influence of Italo Calvino's famous novel “Invisible Cities”, conceived in terms of a technical combination of keys and based on structuralist theories, while the last work Mandala 3 , written in 1978, develops, in the first movement, the chorale “Wir setzen uns mit Tranen” from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Timbres, tonal modulations, are hinted at in mininal ways, presenting an allegorical work where the instruments are cemented by the piano. It's worth mentioning all the performers, starting with soprano Sarah Leonard. For lovers of contemporary music.

Artistic Quality: Outstanding; Technical quality : Excellent
Andrea Bedetti