Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ or something like that, and in the case of David Lumsdaine born in Sydney eighty years ago, long resident in England and married to composer Nicola Lefanu it is certainly so. These discs sum up Australia and its culture superbly well and he has had the idea of linking what he calls ‘Soundscapes’ – there are six of these in all, with some songs and instrumental works which reflect on or are an echo of the natural world.
For example the opening track of birdsongs and crickets leads us into the fleeting A Little Cantata written in memory of Tracey Chadwell that wonderful soprano and supporter of contemporary music whose sudden death in 1996 deprived us all of what might have been many more years of new music making. Lesley-Jane Rogers is a fine substitute but I’m not convinced that in her very high register the words are really distinct. Talking of which, Lumsdaine himself, to make sure that he has maintained the atmosphere of the soundscape, has written them. He favours here and elsewhere on the CD short, aphoristic poems from which he can capture a single mood and then move on, dividing the poetry by brief instrumental sections which themselves are, in a way, not unlike the bird calls or frog noises in the Soundscapes which precede and follow them. It’s wonderful how the frogs ( Soundscape II ) are followed by a gorgeous piece for solo cello, Blue upon Blue , so wistful and shimmering. The dawn chorus, which constitutes Soundscape III with all sorts of exotics, segues into the more brittle sound of the six bagatelles – very much Beethoven-inspired apparently – which constitute the Six Postcards . What I love about these pieces is how they make their mark, say what they have to say and then move on.
Don’t get thinking that the Soundscapes are just Lumsdaine going around with his tape recorder on a spare afternoon; no, the composer talks of the counterpoint of frog noises and bird calls, a counterpoint heard in the music. Some amazing birdcalls are offered. In Soundscape IV we hear the extraordinary Pied Butcherbird with its tune, beginning with a tri-tone, you can easily write on manuscript and after it the lengthy song-cycle A Tree telling of Orpheus . This uses a beautiful text by Denise Levertov (died 1997) who, although born in England and who lived in the USA seems a perfect poet for an Australian with gift-lines like ‘He sang our sun-dried roots back into the earth/watered them: all-night rain of music so quiet’. Lumsdaine sets it mostly as a Scherzando, with a few very still and eerie passages, with a generally modal tonality in triple or in compound time and with unpredictable dancing rhythms. The whole performance with Gemini and the pure-voiced Lesley-Jane Rogers is an absolute delight and worth the cost of CD on it own.
CD 2 starts with Lumsdaine’s attempt to record the ‘Crested bellbirds’ in a site in central Australia . They sing a single note but as an equal duple followed by a triplet rhythm, each bird choosing a differing pitch. As he says, it becomes the most haunting of the five Soundscapes and flows into an extraordinary piece for sopranino recorder where for a moment you cannot tell where the soundscape ended and where John Turner’s magical playing begins. Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek is seemingly a metamorphosis of the birdcalls just heard. I had the weird pleasure of hearing these tracks on headphones outside where the sounds of Australia ‘s birds mingled with those of an English Spring – quite bizarre. But hearing these far-off birds has whetted my appetite as a keen ornithologist to visit Australia myself and see these amazing singers live.
There follows another demanding and challenging song-cycle and finally a large-scale piano work, which builds on previous ideas. The composer Anthony Gilbert admits, in his witty booklet notes, to visiting Lumsdaine at his North Norfolk home in 1972. This area was to prove to be another inspirational natural environment for the cycle A Norfolk Songbook , a sequence of ten poems by the composer set with simply a recorder – John Turner again moving between at least three. He acts as a perfect duettist evoking bird sounds mentioned such as oyster-catchers, gulls and crossbills. The longer settings bookend eight interior aphoristic poems such as Hedgerow with its lines ‘Yellowhammer / Yellowhammer / Yellowhammer / passing tractor / dust.’ In a sense Australia moves to East Anglia – just briefly.
Written in a remote area of Australia known as Kangaroo Valley Cambewarra is named after a nearby mountain. To quote the notes it presents ‘three parallel visions of the same points approaching sunrise’, rather like Claude Monet as his paintings, say, of Rheims Cathedral in differing lights. There are three attached movements although the outer ones, both of eleven minutes duration, can be played separately. Almost outdoing Messiaen, birdsong totally dominates especially in the middle, scherzo-like movement, but there is a reminder of a rough, harsher landscape in the ‘chorale’ type chordal writing and in some of the abrasive piano textures elsewhere. Modality, coupled with chromaticisms found in other works like the Norfolk Songbook is lost in this brittle, sun-drenched but beautiful soundscape. Yes, a soundscape but five years before the first recorded one heard on this CD. In addition Peter Lawson is quite brilliant and utterly convincing in this vivid and exciting performance.
The excellent booklet has biographies and texts. With this double CD, we can say “Happy birthday, David Lumsdaine”, a composer with much that is original to say. I for one will never forget the effect that his seemingly forgotten orchestral work Hagoromo had on me at the Proms as long ago as 1980.
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