Review of LNT101: British Women Composers, Vol. 1
MS, Gramophone Magazine
There are far too few women composers represented on disc at present, so this issue - the first volume in a projected series - goes some way to correcting the situation. In an ideal world of course there should be no need for a disc exclusively devoted to women composers, but if by highlighting the problem this disc encourages more recording companies to take the initiative, then all the better. And besides, this issue also focuses our attention on one of our most talented conductors - Odaline de la Martinez. Elizabeth Maconchy of course needs no introduction, and here she is reperesented by a substantial work for soprano and chamber ensemble entitled My dark heart - a setting of J. M. Synge's beautiful (and striking) prose translations of three Petrarch sonnets. Maconchy's settings are striking too: the lyrical instrumental writing (string trio, flute/alto flute, oboe/cor anglais and horn), is marvellously atmospheric and plangent, and the poet's mourning over the death of his beloved Laura most effectively conveyed in the beautifully expressive vocal writing. Nicola Lefanu (Maconchy's daughter) has an equally fine ear for mood and atmosphere, and this can be heard in her setting of the ninth-century Irish poem The old woman of Beare. The powerful imagery of the narrative (the ravages of old age expressed via metaphors of the sea) is eerily captured in the vocal part (sometimes spoken and sometimes sung) and is brilliantly performed here by Jane Manning.
The remaining two pieces I found less interesting. Errolyn Wallen's It all depends on you is a setting of four poems by Philip Larkin scored for soprano (sung here by Fiona Baines), tape and two instrumentalists doubling clarinets and saxophones. Larkin loved the playing of jazz musicians Sidney Bechet and Pee Wee Russell and Wallen has reflected this in the jazz inspired writing, but whilst there are certainly some effective and imaginative passages there were times when I felt the word settings were at odds with the rhythms and atmosphere of Larkin's metre. The most effective and imaginative passage for me was the (mainly) unaccompanied setting of Lift through the breaking day, which closes the work. Lindsay Cooper's The road is wider than long (a setting of an 'image diary' by the British surrealist Roland Penrose) held my interest for slightly longer. Cooper's involvement in a wide variety of musical styles (rock, jazz, film and theatre music) can be clearly discerned, and the overall impression is that of a concise piece of music theatre for the imagination. However, despite its approachable and catchy material it is not a work that I would feel inclined to return to very often. For the Maconchy and Lefanu pieces, however, this is a very recommendable disc. Excellent performances and recording.