The Clarinet

Gemini is one of Britain’s most important and most durable contemporary music ensembles. Founded in 1973 and led by several directors (presently Ian Mitchell), this group has been a regular fixture on British radio and television, at music festivals and at community and school concerts that feature music from the 11th to the 21st century in innovative school residencies. They have been ensemble-in-residence at several British universities and have produced a number of recordings of contemporary music.

Gemini has a long and impressive list of commissions, and indeed three of the four pieces on this disc are the result of its commissions. David Lumsdaine (b. 1931) and Nicola Lefanu (b. 1947), the composers represented on this disc, have had a long association with Gemini. While probably not so well-known to American audiences, this pair of composers (who happen to be married to each other in private life) have had long and distinguished careers as composers and as teachers of composition to several generations of younger composers at the several universities where each has taught. Both are significant enough to be included in all the major music encyclopedias, and Lumsdaine has had several books written about his compositions; I found the essay on him written by his wife and posted on his website to be most thoughtful, informative and appreciative.

The compositional style and harmonic language of both composers is highly complex and adventurous, and I have seen this referred to as “post-serial.” But in truth, it is very individual, drawing upon many influences and diverse techniques: music of various periods from the medieval on, the classical music of northern India, the landscapes (musical and otherwise) of the Australian outback and music of various native peoples throughout the world to name only but a few. Their musical outlooks have naturally influenced each other, but there are subtle and not so subtle distinctions. Lefanu has been drawn to a more vocal and theatrical style than her husband, while he has been interested in electro-acoustic compositions as well as traditional settings. Lumsdaine, born in Australia where the couple still spends much time, gave up composing around 1997 due to health issues. Lefanu is still active as a composer, but also works as gifted ornithologist, making high quality recordings of birdsong.

The four compositions on this disc –  two by each composer – come from various periods of compositional activity and are set for various combinations of instruments and voice. Invisible Places by Lefanu is the first piece on the disc, written in 1986 for clarinet and string quartet. There are 16 short movements, played without break, altogether lasting about 16 minutes. The composer writes that the string quartet forms one group with the clarinet as an outsider, “sometimes caught up with them, but more often it is like a person pursuing an independent train of thought.” I was struck by the wide contrasts of energy and mood; sometimes frantically energetic while at other times quiet and reflective. The other piece of Lefanu’s on this disc, Trio 2: Song for Peter, was written in 1983 and is scored for soprano, clarinet and cello. The “Peter” in the title refers to Peter Wiegold, a composer and original founder of Gemini, and draws for the text lines by Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Sara Teasdale and Anton Chekhov, woven together to provide varying perspectives on life and mortality. This rather dark and moody work of approximately 18 minutes requires concentration to listen to and presumably to perform.

Lumsdaine’s fire and leaf and grass is a brief short two-minute work for soprano and clarinet, written in 1991. It has a lyrical, almost modal character, capturing images of nature and summer.

The centerpiece of the disc is Mandala 3, a major work in three movements for a chamber ensemble of piano, flute, clarinet, viola and cello. Written in 1978 and lasting almost 40 minutes, it is one of a series of five “mandala” works, each based on the idea of a single musical idea expanding outwards. The composer terms this an act of meditation. The opening movement, “Chorale,” is essentially a transcription of the final chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The second part, “Sonata,” is a classically shaped binary form, with many passing allusions or references to the earlier music. The concluding “Fantasia,” has an improvisatory and open-ended quality in contrast to the tightly constructed “Chorale” and “Sonata.” It includes echoes and short quotes from the Bach chorale appearing as if out of nowhere, floating above the ensemble. Lumsdaine writes “as soon as one resonance opens up, it merely opens up another,” clearly referencing the mandala geometric pattern. This original and striking work leaves the listener with an inner sense of satisfaction. As frequent collaborators with long associations with these composers, Gemini can certainly be regarded as ideal interpreters of this music. These are indeed excellent and fully committed performances. Ian Mitchell is a top-flight clarinetist, and special kudos go to the soprano Sarah Leonard. All involved in this recording have a special affinity and dedication to contemporary music, which is clearly communicated in the performances on this disc.

—David Ross