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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 fifteen-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 tides 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 flavor. 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 on 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. LeFanu's six operas punctuate her output like the unison figures interspersed throughout the Second String Quartet. Her new one-act chamber opera, entitled Light Passing, was premiered at the National Centre for Early Music at York on 28 October 2004. The composer created a quasi- medieval sound-world to reflect the subject of John Edmonds' libretto - the deathbed reflections of Pope Clement VI, a challenging leading role, movingly realized by bass baritone Nicholas Folwell. The score, for seven solo singers, chorus and six-strong ensemble, seasoned 14th-century polyphony, monody and plainchant with a contemporary sensibility established by an impressive array of percussion instruments. Ensemble 10/10, under the direction of Clark Rundell, brought out the piquant timbres in the writing, but the essentially static dramatic situation meant that the 70-minute opera processed with the implacable tread of a religious ritual. Not always visually compelling, the substance of the evening was anchored in the music and I hope the work will soon appear on CD, where its many subtleties of characterization and wide-ranging sonorities can be fully appreciated. Nicola Lefanu assumed the role of Director in a recent production at the University of York. As a curtain-raiser for Elizabeth Maconchy's centenary, which falls in 2007, the University's Music Department presented The Strangers, one of a trilogy of one-act operas by Maconchy- the other two being The Sofa (1957) and The Departure (1961) - on 16 November. Maconchy telescopes the action, based on Thomas Hardy's own dramatization of one of his 'Wessex tales', to take place on a single night, incorporating poems by Hardy and William Barnes. The students all acquitted themselves very well, but two soloists stood out: both Alex Hargreaves as the Shepherd and Jake Kirner as the Second Stranger (the Hangman) had a genuine operatic flair and sense of the dramatic. The most overwhelming aspect of the evening, however, was the sheer quality of the music. At times reminiscent of the best of Vaughan Williams and Britten, but with a distinctive accent all her own, Maconchy's mastery of vocal lines and orchestra was immediately apparent. The opening storm music, powerful and terrifying enough to enhance any Hammer Horror film, permeates the entire opera until it is ultimately transformed into a bucolic, lurching waltz. A beautifu1 aria in the form of a lullaby, i\n Angel at the Door', sung by Anna Wilson as The Shepherd's Wife supported by a gently pulsing bass and accompanied by a keening oboe solo, was one of the highlights, along with the beautifu1 aria for the First Stranger (Timothy Sommers) and the vivid hangman's song, the centerpiece of the whole work. It is unbelievable that an opera as well crafted as this should be so rarely performed and I trust this excellent production will be the catalyst for further staging of Maconchy's dramatic works and the spearhead of a revival of interest in her music for all genres. 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-humored. 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 (1974) 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 firm a secure technique. It is fortunate that Elizabeth Maconchy's important series of 13 string quartets has rarely been out of the catalogue and are still available on a 3-CD set on the Forum label (FRC 9301). Now some enterprising recording companies need to explore her significant large-scale achievements, such as the Piano Concerto (1928), The Land Suite (1929), Viola Concerto (1937), Symphony (1950), Concerto for double string orchestra (1953), Serenata Concertante for violin and orchestra (1962), Varizioni Concertanti (1965), Ariadne for soprano and orchestra (1970), Epyllion for cello and strings (1975), Creatures for unaccompanied chorus (1979), Music for Strings (1983) and Lift Story for strings (1985). There is so much valuable music waiting to appear on disc and in the concert halls before we can even start to appreciate the range of her distinguished musical legacy.
Paul Conway, Tempo, 4/1/2006

There is something to be said for planning the content of records around composers who were members of the same family, for the juxtaposition can be more than merely interesting. This is especially true when the music is not, for whatever reasons, often encountered, but a danger is that not all members of the family might be equally gifted and the lesser figures get their music on the disc for non-artistic reasons. I welcome a new CD on the Metier label of music by Elizabeth Maconchy and her daughter Nicola Lefanu, for mother and daughter are equally significant figures in British music and yet inhabit very different artistic milieux. The music of Lefanu is considerably more ‘modern’ than that of her mother, yet all of this music is eminently worthwhile. The album is called ‘Reflections’ – the title of a piece from 1960 by Maconchy – and there are seven other works here, three by mother and four by daughter. They range from a tiny Miniature for solo oboe by Maconchy to a chamber cantata by Lefanu lasting just under 25 minutes, but including Maconchy’s Morning, Noon and Night (effectively a large-scale sonata for solo harp) and two songs by Lefanu, A Travelling Spirit, lasting five minutes overall and scored for voice and recorder. These very varied works are performed by the eight musicians who make up Okeanos, a recently formed new music group. Mother and daughter are very well served by them, and the recordings are excellent. Texts (with translations) are included and the notes are by Lefanu.
Robert Matthew-Walker, International Record Review, 8/1/2006

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