Thursday 29 October 2020

A timely reminder of what we are missing: The Crimson Bird, orchestral works by Nicola Lefanu on new disc from NMC

Nicola Lefanu The Crimson Bird and other orchestral works; Rachel Nicholls, BBC Symphony Orchestra, RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Norman del Mar, Colman Pearce, Gavin Maloney, Ilan Volkov; NMC
Nicola Lefanu The Crimson Bird and other orchestral works; Rachel Nicholls, BBC Symphony Orchestra, RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Norman del Mar, Colman Pearce, Gavin Maloney, Ilan Volkov; NMC

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A survey of works spanning over 40 years in terrific live performances makes a fine portrait disc

When I interviewed composer Nicola Lefanu in 2017, the celebrations for her 70th birthday were going to include the premiere of her new piece The Crimson Bird. At the time, this was her first symphonic scale piece for 30 years. It was premiered by soprano Rachel Nichols, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ilan Volkov and a live recording of that first performance is at the centre of a new disc of Lefanu's work.

NMC's new disc, The Crimson Bird and other orchestral works is something of a portrait of composer Nicola Lefanu as it features The Crimson Bird from 2017, alongside two orchestral works from the 1970s, The Hidden Landscape and Columbia Falls  and a shorter work from 2014. The performers are the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductors Norman del Mar (1919-1994) and Ilan Volkov, the RTE Symphony Orchestra under conductors Colman Pearce and Gavin Maloney, and soprano Rachel Nicholls. All the performances are live recordings.

The disc is arranged chronologically, so we start in 1973 with The Hidden Landscape which is Lefanu's first substantial orchestral work and it was first performed by Norman del Mar and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms and that is the performance we hear. Though Lefanu describes the work as being in two sections, framed by a prologue and epilogue, it plays continuously with a sense of gradually unfolding. We open in darkness, a slow emerging of timbre and texture. Throughout this work, and Columbia Falls (from 1975) the music seems to be something of a mosaic or collage, with myriad fragments coming together into one. Lefanu writes for each instrument individually, and the wind are to the fore here, so that we hear lots of small phrases which gradually coalesce. There are two shattering climaxes, with spareness and space between, and always that sense of colour and texture. Individual lines can be very virtuosic, but there is nothing for its own sake.

Columbia Falls was commissioned for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and that group premiered it in 1975 conducted by Louis Fremaux. Here it is heard with the RTE Symphony Orchestra with conductor Colman Pearce which was recorded in 1997. Again it is in one 20 minute arc, and again we are exploring a single landscape of the composer's imagining. It opens in a sustained manner, with interlinked lines rather expressionist in feel, but again it seems to be timbres and textures which excite the composer, and she draws them together in a series of collages, experiencing different aspects of this landscape. There is a constant sense of onward flow.

Threnody is a short orchestral work inspired by Brendan Kennelly’s The Trojan Women, a version of Euripedes tragedy. It was written for the RTE Symphony Orchestra, conductor Gavin Maloney who premiered the work in 2015 and that is the performance we hear. Lefanu describes it is a lament for Astynax and it is a short but serious work with a strong sense of flow, of onward motion, yet still full of intriguing colours.

The Crimson Bird was written specifically for dramatic soprano Rachel Nicholls and the work grew out of Lefanu's engagement with opera (she has written eight). Nicholls, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov premiered the work in 2017 and that is the performance we hear. The work is in four movements, each setting text by John Fuller which is drawn from his poem Siege. Fuller is a poet with whom Lefanu has worked before, including on her 2011 opera Dream Hunter.

The Crimson Bird opens with a mother nursing her baby at dawn, in the second movement he is grown and left home, she fears for him as conflict comes. In the third movement, during the conflict she worries what part he is playing in the war. In the final movement, she laments his death.

Lefanu writes deliberately for her chosen soloist, utilising Nicholls' big bright voice (she is a notable Isolde and Elektra) and its ability to soar over the orchestra. What I had not expected was Nicholls ability to get so many of the words over. Partly this is a result of the way Lefanu writes for the large orchestra. The instruments form a wide palette of colours rather than her using all the forces en masse. The result is to surround the vocal line with an atmospheric aura, full of colour and movement but which lets the soprano through. Of particular note are the rhapsodic and melismatic moments, some of which call for significant virtuosity from Nicholls and which she uses to impart the vocal line with emotional ecstatic moments. For the final movement, the orchestra creates a sort of passacaglia over which Nicholls is by turns lamenting and ecstatic.

The CD booklet not only includes Kate Romano's introduction to Lefanu and her work, but Lefanu's own notes on each of the pieces. All the writing is literate and informative, giving us a fuller picture of a composer whose portrait is created from this disc.

That the performances on the disc are all live is remarkable enough, but three of them are world premieres as well. The results are impressive and confident, a testament both to Lefanu's skill at writing for large forces and the players' understanding of her style. We don't hear enough of Nicola Lefanu's music on disc, and certainly none of her operas seems to have made it into the catalogue, so this survey of her major orchestral works is a timely reminder of what we are missing.

Nicola Lefanu (born 1947) - The Hidden Landscape (1973) [22:35] - 1
Nicola Lefanu - Columbia Falls (1975) [18.52] - 2
Nicola Lefanu - Threnody (2014) [6.46] - 3
Nicola Lefanu - The Crimson Bird (2017) [27.52] - 4
Rachel Nicolls (soprano) [1]
BBC Symphony Orchestra [1, 4]
RTE National Symphony Orchestra [2,3]
Norman del Mar (conductor) [1]
Colman Pearce (conductor) [2]
Gavin Maloney (conductor) [3]
Ilan Volkov (conductor) [4]
Recorded [1] - BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 7 August 1973, [2] - National Concert Hall, Dublin, 19 September 1997, [3] - National Concert Hall, Dublin, 13 January 2015, [4] - Barbican, 17 February 2017
NMC D255  1CD [76.28]

Available from Amazon, from Hive.

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