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Nicola LeFanu: The Crimson Bird, etc

BBC Symphony Orchestra; RTE National Symphony Orchestra, et al (NMC)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Nicola LeFanu
The Crimson Bird*; The Hidden Landscape**; Threnody^; Columbia Falls^^
*Rachel Nicholls (soprano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/*Ilan Volkov and **Norman del Mar; RTE National Symphony Orchestra/^^Colman Pearce and ^Gavin Maloney
NMC NMC D255   76:28 mins

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Nicola LeFanu’s music is both deeply personal and very much of its time. The composer, 73, was formerly professor of music at York University and happens to be the daughter of Elizabeth Maconchy. This, unbelievably, is the first release dedicated entirely to her orchestral works. It’s not before time.

Hidden Landscape dates from 1973 and is conducted here live at the Proms by Norman Del Mar. The digital remastering is excellent and the piece, if maybe a little lengthy, has a powerful inner drive, with orchestration stormy and shadowed in colour but clear in texture. Columbia Falls is played by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra under Colman Pearce: again it evokes the outdoors and perhaps the mystical correlation between the outer state and the inner. The short Threnody (2014), based on Brendan Kelly’s adaptation of The Trojan Women, packs an emotional punch as curtain-raiser to the climactic work, The Crimson Bird.

You need to feel strong before listening to this: a 25-minute song-cycle on poetry by John Fuller exploring the bond of mother and son in a war zone. LeFanu’s musical language has evolved to acquire perhaps more immediacy and she delves deep into these raw images and devastating emotions. Soprano Rachel Nicholls’s concentrated, edgy tone cuts across the orchestra, febrile, heart-rending but strong-centred. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov is malleable, persuasive and chiefly well balanced. In the end the mother is left not knowing if her son has died as hero or murderer. The setting is every bit as agonising as it needs to be.

Read more reviews of the latest Nicola LeFanu recordings here

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Jessica Duchen