This disc enterprisingly combines two pieces by Elizabeth Maconchy’s daughter Nicola LeFanu with two by her husband David Lumsdaine – a welcome juxtaposition even if the music of the two composers is not conspicuously similar in style. It also combines the fruits of recording sessions held in the summer and autumn of 2015 with an earlier recording made twenty years beforehand but which is only now receiving its first release. Although the players in both sessions are identified as Gemini, the only performer in common between 1995 and 2015 is Ian Mitchell, clarinettist and director of the ensemble; the string players are entirely different.
It is unclear why the 1995 recording, a clearly professional effort produced by Chris de Souza, should have waited so long for commercial release. Invisible places is effectively a clarinet quintet in sixteen short movements (separately tracked here) which, Nicola LeFanu informs us in her booklet note, derives from Italo Calvino’s Invisible cities: “seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not of the inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” (It reads more poetically in Italian.) The notion of constructing a large structure – and Invisible places is nearly twenty minutes long – from a collection of smaller fragments is not unfamiliar nowadays, but the results can be disconcertingly disjointed; and it is a tribute to the composer’s skill that, despite plenty of contrast between sections, they do cohere into an evolutionary pattern which lead finally to a peaceful conclusion of some emotional warmth. Playing and recording are immaculate.
David Lumsdaine’s short setting of fire in leaf and grass (why the ‘trendy’ avoidance of capital letters? – the poet does not seem to regard himself as being of the school of cummings) makes a pleasant pendant to the closing bars of Invisible places. It is a straightforward setting of an atmospheric poem, and Sarah Leonard and Ian Mitchell combine felicitously to present this engaging miniature with affection.
Nicola LeFanu’s much more extended Song for Peter is, on the other hand, a much tougher nut to crack, combining as it does elements of a song cycle with those of a formal trio for three instruments (including the voice). The texts are drawn from disparate sources – Emily Dickinson, Anton Chekhov and Ted Hughes – extracted and combined by the composer to surround a complete setting of There will come soft rains by First World war pacifist poet Sarah Teasdale. The threads that bind these disparate elements together, the composer informs us, are “perennial thoughts about time and mortality.” It must be said that Sarah Leonard, a soprano who has devoted her career over many years to the praiseworthy promotion of contemporary music, fails most of the time to get the meaning of the texts across; the vocal lines, with their wide range, cannot be easy to make comprehensible, and the printed texts included in the booklet are absolutely indispensable here. Ian Mitchell, switching here between clarinet and bass clarinet, and cellist Sophie Harris, contribute fully to the balance of the trio, and the engineers have clearly taken care not to emphasise the vocal line to the detriment of the instrumentalists; but the result unfortunately does not communicate the clearly heartfelt intentions of the chosen texts in an ideal manner.
The final track on this CD is by far the most substantial (nearly forty minutes) and consists of a complete performance of David Lumsdaine’s Mandala 3. This is based in part on the composer’s earlier piano piece Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’, the only item on this disc which has been previously available on record. It is, as the earlier title implies, a rumination on the final chorus from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and indeed the first four minutes of the score consist of an arrangement of that chorus for a quintet of flute, clarinet, viola, cello and piano. This is interrupted shortly before its conclusion by a ten-minute ‘sonata’ in binary form which combines elements from the Bach score with “references to other music”. This sort of montage can be dangerous territory for composers, especially when the quotations and references assume a greater prominence than the original music which surrounds them; but here the only obvious citation I detected was the repetition of the strummed pizzicato chords which introduce the scherzo in Elgar’s Cello Concerto – and these indeed could be regarded in their turn as a cross-reference back to Elgar’s own imitation of classical models. At the end of this ‘sonata’ the music then quotes from the earlier piano meditation before launching into a discursive ‘fantasia’, twenty-five minutes long, which thoroughly explores the ramifications of Bach’s imagination and then begins to make points of its own. The playing here is superlative, but I must admit that the Chinese gong sounded very clangourous in forte passages. Surely a larger, deeper and more resonant instrument would have been more effective; as Cecil Forsyth acerbically observed in his textbook on Orchestration, “the instrument has associations with the dinner table.”
That minor cavil aside, I find it difficult to imagine that this music could be better performed than here. I should perhaps mention that I met the young Ian Mitchell in London in the 1970s when he gave the première of the Bass Clarinet Sonata by my friend John Jordan (a work with a particularly beautiful slow movement which really should be commercially recorded) as part of a recital with Anthony Green, which also included the same pianist in my own Saxophone Sonata. Anthony Green in turn was the teacher of Aleksander Szram, who takes the solo part in Mandala 3 on this disc, and makes a heartfelt impression as he plumbs the depth of despair in the work. The booklet notes, running to a full 24 pages of material, are extensive and informative, but are in English only. All the recordings, like the performances themselves, are clear and present.