The ‘Reflections’ of
the title are not only those of Elizabeth
Maconchy’s brief chamber work recorded
here for the first time. The album title
also alludes to the reflections between
this mother and this daughter. What
are the similarities between their musical
identities? In which ways do they differ?
I don’t mean that this disc is didactic
in the content of its accompanying notes
but one is allowed to draw these distinctions
and similarities oneself as chamber
music by both women is placed side by
To enable me to form
a more rounded picture I also listened
again to some of their other recordings.
These included the Naxos CD devoted
to Lefanu (8.557389 - review)
and her Prelude 2, I also listened
to Maconchy’s Nocturne on Atma
(ACD 2 2199 ‘Women write music’), her
string quartets recorded by Unicorn
initially on LP and then on CD and economically
reissued by Regis in a single boxed
set - review.
I also played the LPs of her orchestral
works recorded in 1978 and 1984 by Lyrita
but never transferred to CD.
a true re-assessment and as yet we lack
a full understanding of her style and
achievement. Nevertheless putting all
of these pieces together, especially
with the help of this new CD and its
exquisite performances, certain conclusions
and ideas emerge.
is basically a diatonic composer. Her
language can be intensely chromatic
and sometimes it is modal. That said,
she was never part of what was disparagingly
termed ‘the cowpat school’. She also
had the ability to make a long piece
out of sometimes unpromising material.
In many works practically every bar
can be traced back to the first bars.
You can hear this, for example, in the
Third Quartet of 1938 where a bar of
4/4 time followed by a 5/8 pervades
the entire one movement work. She creates
power out of often grinding dissonances
as at the climax point in the Nocturne
of 1951. She also writes logical and
continuous counterpoint. The opening
ideas in the Overture Proud Thames
recorded by Lyrita do exactly that.
If this sounds a little cerebral, and
it certainly is not, it seems to me
that she later also became increasingly
interested in colour. This is demonstrated
on this new CD in the piece Reflections
for viola, clarinet, oboe and harp.
What a delicious combination this is.
Used with such delicacy and subtlety
it refracts light like the last vestiges
of the winter sun.
She once said ‘I believe
we should be passionately intellectual
and intellectually passionate"
a statement which sums up all of the
Nicola Lefanu is
basically an atonal composer: one who
uses, if she wishes, a tone row, or
quarter tones or alleotoric techniques.
It is also interesting to note something
she said about her own Second Quartet
which applies to the pieces recorded
here. She wrote in the Naxos CD booklet
mentioned above: "The musical thought
is carried forward in a succession of
images, contrasting but organically
related". In this we are not a
million miles away from her mother’s
own compositional approach. Listen to
Lefanu’s Lament which bravely
opens the CD with its deliberately dark
instrumental colouring. It begins with
a keening descending slide through the
quarter-tones. The piece then proceeds
solemnly until a minute or so from the
end when some kind of spiritual reconciliation
is achieved; a quasi-plainsong idea,
quite modal and quiet, ends the piece
You can hear the two
composers neatly adjacent with the two
pieces for solo instruments. Although
Lefanu’s Soliloquy for solo oboe,
a piece she wrote whilst still at school,
is five times longer than her mother’s
Miniature it does not pack any
more of a punch. Interestingly, it was
written no less than 22 years before
what transpired to be her mother’s last
The solo harp work
by Maconchy Morning, Noon and Night
was written for the Aldeburgh Festival
of 1977 and has a touch of Britten about
it. The harp is notoriously difficult
to write for, as I know to my own cost.
Of course it is a diatonic instrument
but Maconchy mixes chromatisisms carefully
with an individual form of modality
to produce an original and slightly
acerbic sound-world of great beauty.
The first movement is a very good example
of how she beavers away at a single
idea but producing a surprising ending
from ‘up her sleeve’.
Both women write well
for voices but Nicola Lefanu more so
for the solo voice. On a Chandos LP
recorded in 1980 Jane Manning performed
two song cycles written when Lefanu
was in her mid-twenties: The Same
Day Dawns and But Stars remaining.
The voice is important to Lefanu, and
on this new CD another doyen of contemporary
music, Sally Bradshaw, is in pretty
good form in Mira Clas Tenebras.
This piece uses varied texts from the
middle ages and earlier to create a
nocturnal world contesting darkness
and dawn. The same fleeting and fragile
sound-world I remember from The Same
Day Dawns, a piece with a
similar theme, is present here. The
texts are divided by brief instrumental
commentaries – one for viola, one for
harp, and one even for oboe d’amore.
All quite fascinating. A Travelling
Spirit consists of two brief settings
of riddles from the Anglo-Saxon Exeter
Book of Riddles. These feature another
big-time supporter of contemporary British
music, the superb recorder player John
Turner who invited Lefanu to write the
There are, in addition,
very good notes on the pieces by Nicola
Lefanu. All texts are given and translated.
There are biographies of the performers.
The recording venue, although new to
me, seems ideal.
I could go on, but
instead I can only advise that you hunt
the CD out. Some of the sounds on it
will haunt you hours after you have
returned it to its case.
see also Maconchy