On a recent release on the Metier label, featuring chamber works by Lefanu and Elizabeth Maconchy, the most substantial work on the programme is Lefanu’s Mira Clas Tenebras, a 20-minute Nocturne for mezzo, viola, cor anglais/oboe d’amore and harp which consists of songs of darkness, sleep, dreams and dawn. Night is a key source of inspiration for the composer, featuring in the titles of many of her recent works. In the case of Mira Clas Tenebras, eloquent solos for the instrumentalists are sprinkled throughout the piece like nightlights, illuminating the expressive vocal line. The use of quarter-tones adds an appropriately exotic flavour. Three bell-like chords on the harp act as an idée fixe, perhaps representing the dawn, appearing at the end of the second and sixth songs and initiate the intricate harp solo’s shadowy introduction to the concluding song, ‘Tenebras’. Other Lefanu works featured in this well-filled disc include her fluent Soliloquy (1965) for solo oboe, persuasively interpreted by Jinny Shaw; A Travelling Spirit, turning the unusual but satisfying combination of soprano and recorder to expressive account; and the moving Lament (1988) for oboe, clarinet, viola and cello. The work was not written ‘in memoriam’, but was inspired by two simultaneous anniversaries: the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela, then still imprisoned, and the bicentenary of Australia, bringing with it reflections on the beginning of the end of Aboriginal population with the arrival of the English in 1788. Hence, there is a lingering, deep melancholy about the work, which does not achieve any catharsis but uses its dark instrumentation and frequent dying falls to reflect an inconsolable lamentation.
A small selection of her chamber work on the new Metier disc provides a timely reminder of Maconchy’s particular skills in the field of intimate music-making. Reflections (1960) for viola, clarinet, oboe and harp finds the composer at her most relaxed and good-humoured. The opening material, fertile enough to engender and sustain the material of the ensuing four-movement work, is both memorable and mysterious. The atmospheric Lento is a reminder of how easily she is able to conjure up entire worlds in a matter of minutes and one of the many pleasures throughout this immensely attractive work is the superbly idiomatic, inventive writing for each instrument. Morning, Noon and Night (1976) is a tour de force for solo harp, Maconchy sometimes making the instrument sound like an entire ensemble, such is the brilliance of the writing. Yet, the listener is never aware of any self-conscious cleverness; the composer’s craft is always firmly at the service of the music. ‘Miniature’ (1987) for solo oboe is a sparkling masterpiece: one of the last things she wrote, it finds genuine eloquence in a tiny fragment. Okeanos approach these scores with imagination and wit rooted in a firm and secure technique.