Celebration! – Elizabeth Maconchy (100th) & Nicola LeFanu (60th)

String Quartet No.5
Two French Songs
Four Sketches for Solo Viola
String Quartet No.2
Sun, Moon and Stars
Songs without words
Little Songs for Jane [First public performance]
String Quartet No.10

Tippett Quartet [John Mills & Jeremy Isaac (violins), Maxine Moore (viola) & Bozudar Vukotic (cello)]

Gemini [Ian Mitchell (clarinet), Caroline Balding (violin) & Yuko Inoue (viola) & Robin Michael (cello)]

Carola Darwin (soprano) & Maria Krivenski (piano)

Dimitri Murrath (viola)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 1 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room

In the pre-concert conversation, Nicola LeFanu (born 1947) talked warmly of her Irish-born mother, Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994). Early in her adult life, Maconchy had contracted tuberculosis, from which two members of her family had died. Determined to survive, she and her husband slept in a specially constructed garden hut, with one side open to the elements. In snow, her husband moved the hut round, shielding its open section from the flurry.

As we know, Maconchy survived. She had children. As an adult, Nicola Lefanu realised that the piano-playing she heard after going to bed as a child at 8 o’clock was her mother in the act of composing.

The concert, part of the Park Lane Group’s current season, opened with Maconchy’s String Quartet No.5, begins with a grave four-part canon, from which much of the rest of the work derives. A faster contrapuntal section follows – not quite coherent, I found. Then comes a rapid, busy Presto, and the ensuing Lento espressivo introduces a tranquil melody from the first violin, pure and spare. Then, gathering a momentum of togetherness, the other instruments begin to actively partner the leader. The final Allegro has the succinct spirit and variety of an overture to a one-act opera – including a puckish [leprechaun?] pizzicato section and the return of the inaugural canon. An agile musical mind is at work – a composer of intellect and integrity, but of strong, if austere emotions, too.

Her Quartet No.10, in one movement, is even finer. A stately opening, slightly warmer than that to No.5, opened a casement to fleeting impressions – a fast, scurrying world, slowing down from time to time to recuperate and relax. Once again, inaugural themes returned in different forms, giving the work its unruffled unity.

Nicola LeFanu’s Quartet No.2, lasting for ten minutes, is also in one movement. It was written in Ireland, in memory of her parents – a commission for the 1997 London International String Quartet Competition. The writing is intricate and warm, sunny and relaxed. LeFanu had a sonnet form in mind – concise, taut and internally diverse. She uses various themes, quarter-tones, diatonic outline and, towards the end, “simple chromaticism” to convey life as enjoyably diverse, worth delighting in.

The Tippett Quartet played all three works. The musicians were serious and effective, lively and committed, playing with both intensity and aplomb. I particularly enjoyed the rich tones that the writing allowed to Maxine Moore and the firmness of Bozudar Vukotic,

I enjoyed LeFanu’s Songs without Words (for clarinet and string trio). Gemini, which celebrated its 30th–season in 2005, produced a warm, mature, lived-in sound. Ian Mitchell was a delight to listen to, whether holding a solo line or intertwining with the strings. LeFanu diverted us with considerable variation here: ingratiating, easy on the ear, but sonically alert.

Carola Darwin has a pleasing and warmish soprano voice. In LeFanu’s Mallarmé song (‘Billet à Whistler’), I must confess to enjoying the accompaniment most – due to Maria Krivenski’s cool-headed panache. I cared less for LeFanu’s vocal line, modishly angular. Darwin sounded strained, not really at home. The Gwen John poem about her haughty cat was delightful, though. I was uneasy, too, about what came over as self-conscious awkwardness in Maconchy’s Thomas Traherne settings, gathering – I freely admit – in genuine inner intensity. In LeFanu’s “Little Songs for Jane”, “for Carola to sing for Jane”, Carola herself was engagingly relaxed – as was Dimitri Murrath.

Sombrely and strikingly, in black, sober tallness, Murrath had played Maconchy’s Sketches with terse remoteness. The viola’s rich, grave sonority was evident, its lyrical possibilities less so. Only, in the last piece, was I engaged – when Maconchy suddenly and with hectic address went into Janáček vein, urgently and vitally.

We should hear the music of Maconchy and Lefanu more often: they both have much to offer.

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