The Crimson Bird for soprano and orchestra (2016)
soaring new work is timeless and timely
Rachel Nicholls delivered a gleaming performance in Nicola LeFanu’s fiery new concertante. Nicola LeFanu’s new work The Crimson Bird, an RPS Elgar bursary commission feels at once timeless and urgently up to date. A mother signs of feeding her baby, and of a siege. So far, so Trojan. But John Fuller’s text turns us away from mythical times and towards the present. A house sliced open, children dead in the dust, mortars exploding in the citadel; we could be in Aleppo. LeFanu’s 25-minute score, for soprano and full orchestra, knits all of this together. A lilting clarinet figure at the start, as the baby sucks in his sleep, becomes the sound of starving dogs whimpering outside the gates – and finally the keening of the mother, whose now-adult child has been killed without her knowing whether he is murderer or hero. It was written for Rachel Nicholls, who gave a gleaming, soaring performance, yet the orchestral heft was such that even a voice as powerful as hers was sometimes obscured. But LeFanu, with her long experience of writing opera, ensured the most shocking words were heard: the listener is brought up short as the orchestral turmoil suddenly cuts out and the soprano resorts to speech.
—Erica Jeal, The Guardian (18 February 2017)
LeFanu has created a concertante work which certainly does justice in orchestral terms to the uncompromising directness in Fuller's dramatic narrative. The four sections of the work, entitled Vigil, Terror, Lament and Prayer in Fuller's original poem, displayed LeFanu's creative talent for orchestral colour, displayed in the translucent textures of strings, wind and celesta which gently swirled around Nicholls' solo part in the opening stanza, "When the air is cool as silk", the eerie moans heard after the lines "Where the dying are darkened and whimpering/ Like dogs who have been shut out of their lives" and the explosive violence of the second and third sections.
—Online ‘Bachtrack’ blog (18 February 2017)
British composer Nicola LeFanu is renowned for works of imaginative beauty, often drawing on diverse extra-musical prompts (previous pieces explore the Black Death, Edo Japan and the Arizona desert). LeFanu’s Trio 2: Song for Peter (1983) for soprano, clarinet and piano is by turns fierce and meditative, pondering ideas of mortality through texts by Emily Dickinson, Checkhov, Ted Hughes and Sara Teasdale, and performed here with particular poise and fire by soprano Sarah Leonard. Invisible Places (1986) for string quartet and clarinet takes Italo Calvino’s beguiling Invisible Cities as its starting point, capturing the book’s seamless shifts between micro- and macrocosm in the score’s inventive textural contrasts.
—Kate Wakeling BBC Music Magazine (March 2017)
A superbly constructed single-movement span, Nicola LeFanu’s Piano Trio of 2003 develops logically and grippingly the distinctive ideas presented in the opening bars. It proved the young performers’ ability to tackle pure, non-programmatic music and demonstrated their natural feeling for formal proportion and balance. A substantial statement balancing refinement and toughness, LeFanu’s Piano Trio made a weighty and satisfying centrepiece to the programme.
—Paul Conway, Musical Opinion (Autumn 2015)
Tokaido Road, a Journey after Hiroshige chamber opera (2014)
Inspired by the Japanese artist Hiroshige’s woodblock print series 53 Stations of the Tokaido, LeFanu and her librettist Nancy Gaffield have created an existential journey in speech, song, mime and dance with Hiroshige’s pictures projected. What with unhappy love, treacherous rivers and wintry scenes, it’s rather like an oriental Winterreise. We’re left with Hiroshige in old age, singing his own epitaph, and the dying murmurs of the sho (Japanese mouth organ) and flickerings of the plucked koto. The strongest element in Tokaido Road is LeFanu’s sensitive use of the combined western and Japanese sound palette of the Okeanos ensemble, which combines the likes of sho and koto with oboe, clarinet, viola and cello. The piece is well paced and meticulously thought through, with spare instrumental lines exquisitely woven with the voices and deftly conducted by Dominic Wheeler. The director Caroline Clegg and choreographer Nando Messias guide the body language of the old Hiroshige (baritone Jeremy Huw Williams, speaking) and the young, travelling Hiroshige (Williams, singing), the two lovers Kikuyo (Raphaela Papadakis) and Mariko (Caryl Hughes), and Tomoko Komura’s superb mime artistry. Every word is audible, every movement is eloquent and Kimie Nakano’s design remains long in the mind’s eye.
—The Times (8 July 2014)
Dream Hunter chamber opera for 4 singers and chamber ensemble of 7 players (2011)
An impressive new chamber opera by Nicola LeFanu.. Fuller's is a model libretto, inspiring responses and finding its fulfilment in LeFanu's sentient and highly charged music. Tracking the nerve system of each character, her score is both spiky with tension and, particularly in the voice of Catarina (delectably sung by Charmian Bedford) sensually melismatic.. these were quite some words, quite some music. The subtlety of word and music makes this an irresistible 50 minutes that festival directors should be quick to take up.
—The Times (February 2012)
A tautly dramatic hour of intensely coloured, sinuous music. Director Carmen Jakobi produced some wonderfully fresh ideas.. the ensemble Lontano played with needle-sharp precision under the assured direction of Odaline de la Martinez.
—The Observer (February 2012)
From the first, LeFanu revealed operatic ability. She sets words well. She has a command of picturesque, imaginative instrumental colour. Dream Hunter held the attention securely. Martinez and Lontano eloquently sounded LeFanu’s arresting score. Caryl Hughes’ singing passed with honours.. Charmian Bedford’s performance was eloquent. Dream Hunter is an opera I’ll not forget’. Opera April 2012
—Opera (April 2012)
The Bourne for soprano and harp (2008)
the highpoint for me turns out to be Nicola LeFanu's setting of Christina Rossetti. The Bourne is a minutely balanced work with a harp accompaniment (played by Lucy Wakeford) that gently frames and shadows the bewitching contours of the melody. Melancholic, meditative and profoundly moving, sung with minute control by Ms Atherton, Ms LeFanu's song is utterly transporting.
—The Economist (April 2009)
Misterium Mirabile for SSA choir (1999) & Rosa sine Spine for SSA choir (2002)
two exquisite carols by Nicola LeFanu
—The Times (January 2008)
Light Passing chamber opera for seven solo singers, chamber ensemble and small chorus (2004)
a welcome and absorbing addition to Britain’s post-Britten chamber operas…it has the equipment to entertain and illuminate for years to come
—The Times (October 2004)
an opera that challenges and satisfies in equal measure
—Opera (January 2005)
LeFanu’s boldly invigorating and moving modern chamber opera, based on the life of Clement VI (1291-1352), generally viewed as the most brilliant of the Avignon popes. LeFanu and her highly skilled librettist John Edmonds have turned Clement’s life into a thoughtful and profoundly engaging stage work
—Church Times (November 2004)
Catena for eleven solo strings (2001)
Even more rewarding is Catena.. it’s an absorbing, subtly evolving and imaginatively textured study which employs microtonal intervals to judicious and liberating effect
—The Gramophone (April 2005)
[Catena] demonstrates LeFanu’s skill in building and sustaining large structures. Sheerly beautiful and passionate, its riches are characteristically understated and implicit, the brilliance of the writing always at the service of the musical argument.
—Tempo (April 2006)
Amores for horn and strings (2004)
there was backbone here as well as beauty, and in Richard Watkins’ hands the horn part ricocheted around with thrilling, dramatic effect.
—The Times (February 2004)
In these evocative five movements, full of haunting allusions, a central lyrical nocturne liberated the horn into a brilliant extended cadenza in the fourth, with the Goldberg’s vibrant strings drawn back into a passionate and taut argument in the finale.
—The Guardian (February 2004)
The Same Day Dawns for soprano and ensemble (1974)
Nicola LeFanu is a composer of exceptional gifts of head and heart.
—Michael Steinberg in The Boston Globe (November 1974)