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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-20th century) music this album is exceptional in the presentation of interesting, moving and often downright gorgeous music.

—John France