Mandala 3 – Music by David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu

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Artist/s: Gemini. Ian Mitchell (director), Sarah Leonard (soprano), Aleksander Szram (piano)
Category: Classical, New Music
Label: Métier MSV 28565
www.divineartrecords.com
Reviewed by

“Australian composer David Lumsdaine has waited almost forty years for this, the first commercial recording of his acclaimed work Mandala 3; is he to be another composer whose talent will be appropriately recognised only after his death?”

David Lumsdaine

In 1975 David Lumsdaine wrote a piano piece – Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’ (Rest safely, safely rest) – inspired by the final chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It is almost impossible for mere mortals to express in words the profound effect of Bach’s music, but David Lumsdaine does just that through music – firstly Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’, then another work, Mandala 3, written in 1978.  Both form a unique and remarkable homage to the master. Mandala 3 opens with “Chorale”, an arrangement for piano, flute, clarinet, viola, cello and piano of the Bach chorus, ending unexpectedly as it moves into the second section. Entitled “Sonata”, this is a gentle meditation where the instruments constantly weave around each other, subtly referencing the Bach; a Chinese gong makes an appearance. The third part “Fantasia” is an extended piano solo which incorporates Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’ to create an extensive and eloquent outpouring of feeling. A recapitulation of the “Chorale” provides an ethereal commentary towards the end, and the last chord is an inspired, final salute to Bach. This is in no way a set of variations, even though Bach is ever-present. It is powerful music, an intense and absorbing work which receives virtuosic performances from pianist Aleksander Szram and members of the Gemini ensemble: Ileana Ruhemann (flutes), Catriona Scott (clarinet), Caroline Balding (viola), Sophie Harris (cello), conducted by Ian Mitchell.

The Gemini Ensemble

Also by David Lumsdaine, fire in leaf and grass is a setting for soprano and clarinet of a text by Denise Levertov. Soprano Sarah Leonard, one of Britain’s most respected and versatile artists, gives a beautiful and sensitive interpretation of this delightful short song, accompanied by Ian Mitchell’s expressive clarinet.

Sarah Leonard has a particular interest in contemporary music and is a regular performer with Gemini, the commissioner of Nicola LeFanu’s Trio 2: Song for Peter; she gives a masterly performance of this vocally challenging piece. David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu are husband and wife and the Trio was written in 1983 as she was nursing their new-born baby. This is no lullaby, however. Settings of texts by four poets – Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Sara Teasdale and Anton Chekov  “…give different perspectives to perennial thoughts about time and mortality”. The music varies between disturbing tension and peaceful interludes and much more besides. Superb writing for the cello and clarinet showcases the considerable skills of Sophie Harris and Ian Mitchell.

Nicola LeFanu

LeFanu’s Invisible Places is another striking work. LeFanu’s music is engrossing, not easy to describe. It is sparse and astringent at times, reminiscent of Stravinsky without being anything like Stravinsky. It demands close attention for maximum reward. This work has sixteen continuous movements, mostly around a minute long. It takes us on a journey, sometimes mysterious, sometimes contemplative, at other times startling or passionate, and always deeply felt. Glorious clarinet solos for Ian Mitchell are balanced by dynamic string writing where the quartet sometimes sounds like a small orchestra. Caroline Balding and David Angel (violins), Yuko Inoue (viola) and Jo Cole (cello) give outstanding performances.

Gemini is a British ensemble and one of Britain’s busiest, with an extensive performance, broadcast, touring, commissioning and disc recording schedule. Formed in 1973, Gemini has made two discs of music by Nicola Lefanu and three of David Lumsdaine, also commissioned the two Lumsdaine works on this CD as well as the LeFanu Trio. All works on the CD are first recordings.

The excellent booklet that accompanies this CD is full of information. It includes program and biographical materials, texts for the vocal works, recording details, two interesting essays on Lumsdaine and LeFanu by Peter Wiegold and Kate Romano, in addition to the Foreword by Gemini’s director Ian Mitchell. The cover image by Colin Rose is fascinating, taken from a painting in Lumsdaine’s own collection.

All in all, an impressive production.

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