The Music of Nicola LeFanu

NMCD255 cover

LeFANU: The Hidden Landscape / BBC Symphony Orch.; Norman del Mar, cond / Columbia Falls / RTÉ National Symphony Orch.; Colman Pearce, cond / Threnody / RTÉ National Symphony Orch.; Gavin Maloney, cond / The Crimson Bird / Rachel Nicholls, sop; BBC Symphony Orch.; Ilan Volkov, cond / NMC D255 (live: London, August 7, 1973 (1st work) & February 17, 2017 (4th work); Dublin, September 19, 1997 (2nd work) & January 13, 2015 (3rd work)

Nicola LeFanu (b. 1947), the daughter of Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy and William LeFanu, studied at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford before going on to Harvard where she won a Harkness Fellowship. She later became Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School (why name a girls’ school after a male saint?), then taught and lectured on music at King’s College, London and the University of York. Although this is not the first release of her works on CD—there are several out there on which her music is included—it is the first time for these specific pieces and, from what I could glean online, only the second CD devoted entirely to her music (the other being Catena for 11 Solo Strings Etc. on Naxos).

LeFanu’s mode of musical expression is highly unusual, combining as it does amorphous, often broken melodic lines and atonal harmony with slow-moving figures. This gives one the impression of “mood” pieces that express discomfort and unease rather than calm, peaceful figures. Nor is her music consistently calm: six minutes into The Hidden Landscape and we hear an orchestral explosion, including tympani, which is truly terrifying. In the liner notes, LeFanu admits that “the atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive,” so clearly this is not an idyllic spot within the hidden landscape! LeFanu admits that she is an “outdoors” person who does not like urban living but, like Mahler, she sees nature for what it is—alternately peaceful and scary beyond belief.

LeFanu, then, is not a composer who will appeal to the masses. Her music is not melodic, tonal, nor comforting…but it is highly creative and, for those who are not prejudiced against modern sounds, it holds the listener’s attention. Even when things get extremely quiet, i.e. around the 14-minute mark of this work, there is something going on, a feeling of something not quite wholesome lurking around the next corner, that keeps you listening to hear what comes next. At 19:12, there is a complete dead stop; one thinks the piece is over; but surprisingly, very quiet wind and string figures enter to pick up the thread of the music and continue it to the end. This, by the way, is the actual world premiere performance.

Columbia Falls was commissioned for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1975. LeFanu describes it as “rather like looking at a broad landscape. You are aware both of the overall contour and of the balance of forces that shape it; you sense distant horizons whilst taking in a profusion of details. This is a metaphor; but for a composer, discovering a new work has all the wonder of literal exploration.” The music follows a similar profile to the preceding work, which is not terribly surprising considering that they were written only two years apart, yet even so the content is very different. There is more rhythmic movement in Columbia Falls, and here LeFanu assigns each “orchestral ‘family’” its own music and sonic landscape. As the composer puts it, the listener “can move between foreground and background, taking bearings from the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, ideas that are recurring, meeting, parting, changing. The perspective is always shifting, the music always growing about you.” As a listener, however, I found myself less involved in the music from that perspective than I was simply immersed in the peculiar ebb-and-flow of the piece. In general, Columbia Falls is louder than The Hidden Landscape and has more going on, though it’s true that one can focus on the foreground in one listening and the background in another. Another feature that both works have in common is their ability to make time “stand still” for the listener. Each note and phrase is an event in the here-and-now in addition to contributing to the larger progression of the music. It’s kind of a Zen thing. Yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that this piece went on about eight minutes too long.

Threnody is a brief orchestral piece (6:46 long) based on Brendan Kennelly’s The Trojan Women. LeFanu claims that her lament is for the young boy Astynax, who was murdered so that he might not grow up to be as brave as his father, Hector. Being more tightly written, I felt that this piece made a very good impression.

The final work, The Crimson Bird, includes a vocalist. This, too, was inspired by The Trojan Women, in this case using an original modern text by poet John Fuller. The summary of the text is given thus in the booklet:

1: A young mother at dawn. Nursing her baby, she gazes at the surrounding landscape. She rejoices in its fertility, but she also fears dispossession. The orchestration is light, the soprano part lyrical.

2: Her son has grown up and left home; his mother fears for him. Conflict comes to her country. Her city is besieged and bombarded; she is inside. The music is fast and assertive, for the soprano with the full orchestra.

3: Conflict and siege: the mother is outside the city. What part is her son playing? A ‘hero’ or a ‘murderer’? A dramatic soprano part, over the full orchestra.

4: Pietà: her son is dead. She can only pray for an end to the continuing conflict:
There is no end to a siege when both sides are besieged
There is no end to the suffering of each

A passacaglia for the full orchestra, with the soprano etching a lyrical line.

The music is, again, atmospheric, but here has a discernibly lyrical top line for the singer. Our soprano, Rachel Nicholls, has an absolutely dreadful voice, not only unsteady in pitch with a slow beat that screams “wobble” at the listener, but also with a particularly edgy, ugly timbre. But wouldn’t you know it, she is one of the composer’s favorite singers.

Considering my positive response to some of this music, however, I didn’t feel in the end that most of it would not “stick” with the listener in any way. It is music that entices and interests the listener while it is going on, but not music that “stays” with you. Nonetheless, I recommend this CD as a interesting if transitory listening experience.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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