Nicola LeFanu at 75: a portrait and celebration.
With a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, York Late Music concerts remain a powerful draw for listeners with an interest in contemporary music. On 3 December, Gemini gave a richly programmed concert in the series to mark the 75th birthday of their honorary president, Nicola LeFanu. The players offered a pleasingly broad range of recent and new works, three of them making their concert debuts.
The evening’s music making began with the premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s Gemini Quartet, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2022). This skilfully crafted, ten-minute work took the form of a collection of tiny, contrasting bagatelles or short character pieces, played without a break. The full ensemble got the work underway in a cheerfully dauntless spirit, exploring a descending figure that sounded like a peal of bells. Gradually, as the instruments paired off to form various musical partnerships, including a quicksilver duet for clarinet and piano and an expressive, hushed passage for cello and piano, darker threads in the material began to emerge. Yet, as the narrative progressed, the music mellowed and became more lyrical and fluent, while the open-ended conclusion was radiantly optimistic. The little vignettes that made up the material appeared to be unrelated in the opening stages of the work, yet, in the more expansive sections of the score’s second half, these fragments gradually started to coalesce and cohere. The Gemini Quartet gave the performers a chance to demonstrate their musicianship, both individually and within different larger groups, and its compact, tightly-knit quality allowed the wide-ranging and disparate ideas to hang together convincingly. The players’ longstanding relationship with Nicola LeFanu was evident in their warmly authoritative account of her new piece, written especially for them and dedicated to the ensemble’s director and clarinettist, Ian Mitchell.
Water Mountain, for clarinet, violin and cello (1999) by Dorothy Ker was inspired by a book of dream symbols in the form of gouache paintings, originating in early-19th century India. The piece attempts to capture the inner world of the dream, ‘concentrated, disjunct and fleeting’, in the composer’s words. The result was an evocative mindscape built up from aphoristic passages, some exploratory and transient, others more measured and self-assured. Virtuosic outbursts counterbalanced paragraphs of still contemplation in a richly scored piece that made expressive use of pauses and silences. Gemini’s sensitive, searching account brought depth and imagination as well as technical bravura to this variegated, elusive score.
David Lancaster is based in York and his wonderfully titled Hells Bells Bagatelles, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2022) was influenced by the pealing and tolling sounds of the city’s Minster bells and the change ringing patterns used by bell ringers. Due in part, perhaps, to the resounding nature of its source of inspiration, Hells Bells Bagatelles was by some distance the most aptly festive and jubilant of all the items scheduled in this avowedly celebratory event. Lifting the audience’s spirits with a welcome burst of good cheer, David Lancaster’s collection of deft and inventive short pieces ranged from classical elegance and tango-like playfulness to punchy, rhythmic drive. It was rewarded with a first performance of heart and attention to detail by the Gemini players.
Violinist Caroline Balding and pianist Aleksander Szram brought their artistry to Martin Suckling’s Three Venus Haiku (2009), a response in music to verse by the Scottish poet George Bruce. Inhabiting something of the same, rarefied Celtic atmosphere as Judith Weir’s visionary chamber work, Airs from Another Planet, these three short pieces were superbly played by both musicians, scrupulous in their observance of the extreme dynamic contrasts of the opening piece, dizzyingly swift in the hectic central flight and gently lilting in the closing lullaby.
Thomas Adès’s Court Studies, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2005) consisted of a free transcription of six numbers for members of the Court of Naples taken from his opera The Tempest. These aphoristic character studies retained the spirit of the original stage work, introducing a rich array of protagonists in a very short span. In their sweeping, stylish approach to the score, the four members of Gemini found liveliness and spirit in the opening number, ‘The False Duke’ and underlined the trilling swagger of the main section of ‘The Prince’, contrasting it effectively with quieter, more withdrawn episodes. Still and slow, ‘The King’ was delicately drawn with an authentic sense of remoteness, while ‘The False Duke’s Defeat’ was notably shadowy and ‘The Counsellor’ unfolded with feeling and breadth. The closing number, ‘The King’s Grief’ was the most substantial and affecting of the miniatures, featuring a stately sequence of unhurried, carefully weighted chords.
After the interval, cellist Sophie Harris took to the stage to perform Blue upon Blue, for solo cello (1991) by David Lumsdaine. This dignified, confessional work presented a singing melody supported by an imaginatively varied accompanying line, which made judicious use of glissandos, tremolandos and harmonics. Sophie Harris’s eloquent realisation of the score held the attention throughout, offering a rapt, intimate discourse at the heart of the recital.
Charlotte Bray’s Blaze and Fall, for clarinet, viola and piano (2017) was a heartfelt homage to György Kurtág. The players’ crisply articulated reading underlined the score’s expressive variety, finding liquid elegance in the opening movement and veiled ambiguity in the fleeting, cryptic second. Ian Mitchell relished the spirited, impulsive, cadenza-like clarinet solo at the heart of the work before calm was restored in the smoothly expressive fourth movement. The energetic fifth movement paved the way for the expansive, brooding concluding movement in which the players observed scrupulously the music’s broad dynamic range. This was an attentive, detailed presentation of an intricate and rewarding score.
There followed a pair of piano miniatures by Janet Graham, both written in 2020, during lockdown. Church Blackbird was an enchanting, meditative piece featuring blackbird song and elements of the Gregorian chant, ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’. Aleksander Szram’s poetic and spacious interpretation of the composer’s sophisticated, yet directly expressive musical language cast a potent spell over the audience. Receiving its first performance, Advent Thoughts was another delicate, compelling work of quiet optimism, reflecting the general mood of hopefulness of the time the music was written. A rousing interpolation at the score’s midpoint of phrases from the chant sung in the Matin Responsory ‘I look from afar’, echoed in the veiled closing bars, was elegantly achieved. Gemini rounded off their concert with a carefully considered and superbly polished account of Nicola LeFanu’s Piano Trio, for violin, cello and piano (2003). In this tautly constructed single-movement piece, the main ideas was presented in the opening section. During the work’s first half, the mood became increasingly intense, leading to a fiery and dramatic climax. In the eloquent, more reflective second half, the music gained in lyricism and fluency. The slow, atmospheric coda in which the music gradually ascends, dissolves and cadences, was an ear-catching moment, bringing this thoughtfully compiled recital to a captivating conclusion.