Planet Hugill

This disc on Metier marks two significant birthdays, Nicola LeFanu’s 70th birthday in 2017 and David Lumsdaine’s 85th birthday in 2016, and the disc also commemorates the long association that the ensemble Gemini has had with the music of both composers. Directed by Ian Mitchell, the ensemble is joined by soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Aleksander Szram to perform Nicola Lefanu’s Invisible Places and Trio 2: Song for Peter, and David Lumsdaine’s fire in leave and grass and Mandala 3.

Nicola Lefanu’s Invisible Places for clarinet and string quartet (Ian Mitchell, Caroline Balding, David Angel, Yuko Inoue and Joe Cole) was written in 1986 and consists of 16 short movements lasting a total of around 16 minutes, but the movements play continuously. The inspiration behind the piece is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, with Lefanu in her CD booklet note crediting Calvino with providing a model of how to create a narrative based on many tiny discontinuous ideas. It is a spare and thoughtful piece, and from the opening there is a strong sense of small fragments coming together to make a whole. The strings function principally as a group, and there is a strong feeling of dialogue between them and the clarinet, and though there are moments of drama the conversation soon returns down to a more considered level. It receives a performance which is intense and very focused.

fire in leaf and grass is a short piece by David Lumsdaine from 1991 setting a text by Denise Levertov for soprano, Sarah Leonard, and clarinet, Ian Mitchell. This is a little gem with a nearly unaccompanied soprano and clarinet part separate, the two weaving round.

Nicola Lefanu’s Trio 2 – Song for Peter was commissioned by Gemini and premiered in 1983, written for soprano, Sarah Leonard, clarinet / bass clarinet, Ian Mitchell and cello, Sophie Harries. The text weaves together lines by Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Sara Teasdale and Anton Chekhov to create series of perspectives on time and mortality. This is quite a dramatic piece with angular lines for voice and instruments, and it is a very real trio with different lines coming to the fore rather than the instruments simply accompanying the voice. There are moments of near silence and some terrific contrast of timbre and range. Perhaps it might best be described a meditation, albeit a very fierce one. With its taxing vocal and instrumental parts, it receives a wonderfully committed performance from Sarah Leonard, Ian Mitchell and Sophie Harries.

The final work on the disc is the longest, David Lumsdaine’s Mandala 3. The work has its origins in a solo piano piece of Lumsdaine’s from 1975 Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’ which he describes as a meditation on the final chorus from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. In 1978, in a piece written for Gemini, he returned to the piano work to create a more extended piece. Mandala 3 is in three parts, first a transcription of Bach’s chorus for the instrumental forces, this dissolves into the middle movement, a sonata, which in turn emerges into a freer fantasia. The work is written for solo piano, Aleksander Szram, flute / alto flute, Ileana Ruhemann, clarinet, Catriona Scott, viola, Caroline Balding, cello, Sophie Harris and conductor / Chinese gong Ian Mitchell.

The opening section provides the striking sound of Bach’s chorale transcribed for a piano quintet, with unusual results whilst the sonata is sparer with a sense of the music being de-constructed. Here the paragraphs are punctuated by the Chinese gong, with fragments of Bach drifting in and out of focus, and a real transparency of scoring. In the fantasia the texture gets even sparer, and the solo piano frequently comes to the foreground with some intensely dramatic moments. At one point there is a long piano solo, with the Bach chorale magically floating in the background on the other instruments. David Lumsdaine in his programme note describes it as ‘a very odd piece’, but it is a seductively magical one too.

This disc showcases some significant music by two major contemporary composers. It also showcases a series of enduring relationships, that between Gemini and the composers, and the fact that Lumsdaine and LeFanu are married. This latter fact means that listening to the disc one is intriguingly teased as to whether there are mutual influences between them. The various players of Gemini along with their guests give powerful and committed performances.
Star rating: 4.0

—Robert Hugill