Maconchy awaits a true re-assessment and as yet we lack a full understanding of her style and achievement. Nevertheless putting all of these pieces together, especially with the help of this new CD and its exquisite performances, certain conclusions and ideas emerge.
Elizabeth Maconchy is basically a diatonic composer. Her language can be intensely chromatic and sometimes it is modal. That said, she was never part of what was disparagingly termed ‘the cowpat school’. She also had the ability to make a long piece out of sometimes unpromising material. In many works practically every bar can be traced back to the first bars. You can hear this, for example, in the Third Quartet of 1938 where a bar of 4/4 time followed by a 5/8 pervades the entire one movement work. She creates power out of often grinding dissonances as at the climax point in the Nocturne of 1951. She also writes logical and continuous counterpoint. The opening ideas in the Overture Proud Thames recorded by Lyrita do exactly that. If this sounds a little cerebral, and it certainly is not, it seems to me that she later also became increasingly interested in colour. This is demonstrated on this new CD in the piece Reflections for viola, clarinet, oboe and harp. What a delicious combination this is. Used with such delicacy and subtlety it refracts light like the last vestiges of the winter sun.
She once said ‘I believe we should be passionately intellectual and intellectually passionate” a statement which sums up all of the above comments.
Nicola Lefanu is basically an atonal composer: one who uses, if she wishes, a tone row, or quarter tones or alleotoric techniques. It is also interesting to note something she said about her own Second Quartet which applies to the pieces recorded here. She wrote in the Naxos CD booklet mentioned above: “The musical thought is carried forward in a succession of images, contrasting but organically related”. In this we are not a million miles away from her mother’s own compositional approach. Listen to Lefanu’s Lament which bravely opens the CD with its deliberately dark instrumental colouring. It begins with a keening descending slide through the quarter-tones. The piece then proceeds solemnly until a minute or so from the end when some kind of spiritual reconciliation is achieved; a quasi-plainsong idea, quite modal and quiet, ends the piece philosophically.
You can hear the two composers neatly adjacent with the two pieces for solo instruments. Although Lefanu’s Soliloquy for solo oboe, a piece she wrote whilst still at school, is five times longer than her mother’s Miniature it does not pack any more of a punch. Interestingly, it was written no less than 22 years before what transpired to be her mother’s last work.
The solo harp work by Maconchy Morning, Noon and Night was written for the Aldeburgh Festival of 1977 and has a touch of Britten about it. The harp is notoriously difficult to write for, as I know to my own cost. Of course it is a diatonic instrument but Maconchy mixes chromatisisms carefully with an individual form of modality to produce an original and slightly acerbic sound-world of great beauty. The first movement is a very good example of how she beavers away at a single idea but producing a surprising ending from ‘up her sleeve’. Both women write well for voices but Nicola Lefanu more so for the solo voice – Mira Clas Tenebras. This piece uses varied texts from the middle ages and earlier to create a nocturnal world contesting darkness and dawn. The same fleeting and fragile sound-world I remember from The Same Day Dawns, a piece with a similar theme, is present here. The texts are divided by brief instrumental commentaries – one for viola, one for harp, and one even for oboe d’amore. All quite fascinating.
I could go on, but instead I can only advise that you hunt the CD out. Some of the sounds on it will haunt you hours after you have returned it to its case.