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Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Violin Sonata No 1 (1927) [16:38]
Violin Sonata No 2 (1943) [17:11]
Nicola LEFANU (b. 1947)
Abstracts and a Frame (1971) [13:44]
Giles SWAYNE (b. 1946)
Duo, Op 20 (1975) [19:26]
Echo, Op 78 (1997) [5:13]
Farewell, Op 151 (2017) [4:14]
Malu Lin (violin), Giles Swayne (piano)
rec. Old Granary Studio, near Beccles, Norfolk, September 2015 and September 2017
RESONUS RES10271 [75:56]

This disc bears the title ‘Relationships’ for good reason. Nicola LeFanu is Elizabeth Maconchy’s daughter and Giles Swayne’s cousin (Maconchy was a cousin of Swayne’s mother). Further familial interconnections are that the violinist in this disc, Malu Lin, is married to Swayne and they form a companionable duo throughout the programme. Everything here, furthermore, is heard in a world première recording.

Even in the light of so much music new to disc it’s especially fine to welcome both Maconchy’s Violin Sonatas. The First is her first mature work and dates from 1927 when she was a 20-year-old student of Vaughan Williams. Elsewhere in the country Bax was writing his Third Violin Sonata. It opens with oscillating figures and an element of rapt dissonance with a crisply taut scherzo and an introspective Lento in which lyricism is hard won. The fast energetic finale is a Toccata and goes with bravura. The Second Sonata followed in the middle of the war and is as compact as the earlier work but far more developed musically and expressively. Thematic distribution in the opening movement is outstanding but its terse implications reflect the emotional temperature of the times. Though the mood lightens somewhat in the Scherzo, the short motifs hardly hide a note of brittleness, an uneasy accommodation. This is reprised in the slow movement’s dissonances, where a sense of disconnection can be encountered. I think there’s an allusion to Berg’s Violin Concerto too. The finale revisits earlier material, drawing things together into a calm, contemplative epilogue.

Nicola LeFanu’s Abstracts and a Frame was written in 1971 when she was barely 24. It was commissioned by, and composed for, Levon Chilingirian and Clifford Benson. There are two ‘Frames’ – the outer two movements – and six ‘Abstracts’ making eight brief and tightly constructed movements in all. The music is varied and full of sonic interest. Brief outbursts are balanced by busy pizzicati and soloistic writing for the violin. This is music of rhythmic intricacy that can be terse or allow the piano to dominate the texture where one finds quick exchanges between the instrument, one leading, the other following. Gradually one feels the transformative nature of the writing as we journey to the final Frame, which it’s now clear, bears the same indication as the opening; Tranquillo e lento, a satisfying arching device.

There are three works by Giles Swayne, two small and one large-scale. The Duo, Op 20 is a big, near 20-minute work composed in 1975 and dedicated to Christopher Rowland who premiered it with Swayne (he was later first violin of the Fitzwilliam Quartet which recorded the complete Shostakovich Quartets). In his notes Swayne traces the origin of the Duo to doodles he made representing the curves of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, about which mythical beast a series of underwater photographs had been published purporting to show it in motion. But if you think you’re going to get the musical equivalent of Scooby-Doo!, think again. This single-movement piece offers no whimsy, instead offering a really tough and bracing piece of writing that sounds equally tricky for both players. The ‘loops’ Swayne describes encourage him to take both performers across the full range of their instruments and explore a very wide range of dynamics. There are some blistering moments along the way, intricate, virtuosic and athletic. This is a musical beast not to messed with. Recorded in one span without retakes it’s also a heady performance with only a few moments where one can detect the strain.

Echo, Op 78 can be heard straight afterwards as it starts with the same four notes that end the Duo or it can be heard as a standalone piece. It’s an in memoriam for the composer Paul Reade who died in 1997 and is performed largely muted. It’s intricately structured and emotively strong. Finally, there is his Farewell, another short piece composed for a departed friend, in 2017. Swayne is right to point out its ‘floating’ nature as it has a disembodied-suspended element that is striking and moving to hear.

The recital was warmly and sensitively recorded two years apart in the same location and the booklet notes have been co-written by LeFanu and Swayne. The performances throughout by Lin and Swayne are really splendid; they draw out the music’s character through subtlety and telling use of colour, always anchored by technical security. This is a disc worth hearing.

Jonathan Woolf

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