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.
GAPPLEGATE CLASSICAL MODERN MUSIC:
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.