This is an excellent release of music by two significant composers who happen to be married to each other. Australian composer David Lumsdaine (b. 1931) stopped composing in 1996 (finding himself no longer able to write), but the works he created in the approximately 30 years of his writing career are highly regarded; he is widely thought of as one of the most significant Australian composers of his generation. English composer Nicola LeFanu (b. 1947), whose mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy, married Lumsdaine in 1979. LeFanu (who taught for many years at King’s College London and the University of York) is still active as a composer and has produced a catalog of music possessing a keen sense for drama. Her chamber operas (and some dramatic works that live between concert music and staged music) are extremely fine.
The English new music chamber group Gemini (founded in 1973) has had a long association with both composers, and several of the pieces were written for the group. The two Lumsdaine works come from different parts of his writing career. The very brief fire in leaf and grass (1991), a setting of the poem “Living” by Denise Levertov, is in the style of his last vocal works: gently and simply modal, with a lyric cast. The earlier Mandala 3 (1978) is an iconic, major work (nearly 40 minutes). Much of Lumsdaine’s earlier music employed an idiosyncratic approach to 12-tone technique; in some cases, there are allusions to existing music. The five Mandala works all center around the idea of meditation on a single musical object or idea. Mandala 3 is based on an earlier piano piece, a meditation on the final chorale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
Mandala 3 is an extremely striking and individual piece, and this new recording is very welcome. A feature of many of his most iconic works is a real sense of formal originality; his pieces are both tightly constructed while also possessing improvisatory character. It is worth quoting Lumsdaine’s own words about Mandala 3: “… a very odd piece. The clear edges of the music in the chorale and sonata [movements] are an essential foil to the ambiguity and open-endedness of the fantasia. It is insufficient to say that the centre of this mandala is the Bach chorale. What was the centre of that music? As soon as one resonance opens up, it merely opens up another. Is it a meditation on the act of listening itself? I can’t speak dispassionately about this music. It came from nowhere, and it continues to take me everywhere.”
The two LeFanu works on the CD are of similar (c. 15 minute) length. Invisible Places (1986) is a quintet for clarinet and strings in 16 tiny continuous movements. It was inspired by Calvino’s famous Invisible Cities and seeks to create a large-scale narrative out of small, fragmentary, discontinuous ideas. LeFanu notes that the clarinet and the four strings form a single group with the clarinet as the outsider, “sometimes … caught up with them, but more often like a person pursuing an independent train of thought.” Trio 2: Song for Peter (1983) is in a single movement and employs a composite text of poetic lines taken from Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Sara Teasdale, and Anton Chekov. The title refers to Peter Wiegold, the composer founder of Gemini (Ian Mitchell, his successor as director of the ensemble, plays clarinet on this CD). LeFanu notes that she wrote the piece while nursing her newborn son. (He, now a mathematician, is also named Peter.)
This is important music by two master composers beautifully performed by their frequent collaborators. Recommended.