Ian Venables has built a considerable reputation primarily
as an art-song composer. This disc is useful in widening our
knowledge of his music, as it focuses on his imposing output
of chamber works. Three of the pieces featured, the Piano Quintet,
Soliloquy and Poem, are in world premiere recordings.
Venables' intensely lyrical style is difficult to pin down.
In many ways, his musical thinking derives from early to mid
Twentieth Century composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams,
Finzi and Rubbra. The originality of Venables lies largely in
his appreciation that this quintessentially English idiom can
be developed further in a way that is genuinely creative rather
than merely derivative. He does not see this style as having
reached a dead end around 1960 - on the contrary, he is able,
in his best music, to update and revitalise this home-grown
musical language. Although the influence of the above-mentioned
composers is occasionally evident on this disc, Venables does
have a recognisable musical style of his own, distinguished
by its passion and warmth.
The most substantial offering here is the Piano Quintet of 1995,
a bold and deeply felt conception that has the emotional pull
of Elgar's work for the same forces, but in a more modern manner.
The spacious first movement sustains its length admirably, although
it has to be admitted that the development section doesn't really
add much to the musical argument. It is in the second movement,
marked Largo espressivo, that the influence of Finzi
comes to the fore most noticeably (for example in the passage
beginning at 3:33), although the music as a whole remains highly
personal. The opening of the finale is a most unusual but attractive
blend of Malcolm Arnold and Finzi. It carries a strong sense
of emotional narrative. An involving and compelling musical
story is being told in this movement which leads naturally and
inevitably to the resignation of the final bars.
The Three Pieces for Violin and Piano are quite early
Venables, yet must rank amongst his most attractive works in
any genre. They are immediately appealing, yet also reward repeated
listening. It seems that Venables' move to Worcestershire, with
its strong Elgarian associations, made a profound impression
on him. This can be heard in the Pastorale, with its
touching allusions to Elgar's Nimrod (from 0:45) and,
perhaps, the First Symphony slow movement (from 3:28). This
is not to accuse the composer of plagiarism - the resemblances
to Elgar are fleeting, yet surely intentional, and could be
interpreted as being part of the emotional meaning of the music.
Perhaps Venables is telling us that, in taking up residence
in Worcestershire, he found his musical as well as spiritual
The second movement, Romance, is astonishingly fine and
is music of heartfelt simplicity. This must rank amongst the
most beautiful pieces for violin and piano, and not just from
this country. There is a powerful feeling here that time has
The Dance that follows is a perfect foil for the other
movements. At times, this highly rhythmic music is slightly
reminiscent of the mood of the finale of Rubbra's remarkable
(yet sadly neglected) Second Violin Sonata. The engaging subsidiary
idea of Venables' Dance (from 0:40) is as fine as any
melody I have heard from this composer. The Three Pieces
are truly masterly and deserve to take their place in the
The rest of the disc is taken up with three intensely dark-toned
works for a single stringed instrument and piano. The Elegy
for Cello and Piano has a smouldering passion worthy of
Fauré. The Soliloquy for Viola and Piano (revised especially
for this recording) is finer still, with its broad and spacious
musical paragraphs successfully balancing light and shade. The
Poem for Cello and Piano matches the Elegy and
Soliloquy in eloquence. If I wished to make a single
criticism of this disc, it would be that there is not sufficient
variety of mood in these last three pieces. Perhaps a livelier
work could have been inserted somewhere towards the end of the
recording to lighten the tone? But this is mere quibbling, as
the music itself is of such a high calibre.
The performances are all one could wish for. Mark Bebbington
is, as one would expect, splendid in the Piano Quintet. Roger
Coull and Graham J. Lloyd offer playing of the highest level
of sensitivity and accomplishment in the Three Pieces for
Violin and Piano. The excellent booklet notes, by Graham J.
Lloyd, are persuasive as well as informative. Mention must also
be made of the recorded sound, which is of demonstration quality.
This impressive disc deserves the widest possible exposure.
And a further review of this CD from Rob Barnett
Ian Venables would surely have adopted the English lyric idiom regardless of the
fashion of the times. He has been fortunate to have emerged into
an era more welcoming of the lyric impulse and its release.
His thirty minute Piano Quintet makes a fine companion to the quintets by Elgar, Bax and Bridge. Those works pre-date the present one by many decades. That does not stop the Venables work from working from territory akin to his predecessors. It is a surgingly romantic piece with the dizzyingly intoxicating abandon of the Foulds Cello Sonata and Quartetto Intimo
. The musical ideas are sumptuous. This is lavish romanticism to make the heart reflect and above all to sing. It's also witty and even a shade like Dvorák in the finale. Do not miss out on this sunnily profound music.
His Three Pieces
for violin and piano date from his move to Worcestershire in 1986. The Pastorale
all sing from the same leafy songbook as the piano trios of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. I did not say they are a facsimile of Gibbs' style but if you enjoy Gibbs, Milford or Finzi then these should warm the cockles. The Elegy
is very early, written in 1980 and is a keepsake of unreturned love. It is introspective as one might expect but very eloquent and poignant. The 1995 viola Soliloquy
is from the same region of the heart. It is dedicated to that tireless champion of British lyrical music Anthony Boden and his wife Anne. Melancholy and soulful, it has nothing of the circus about it. Instead we encounter consolation in a typically generous melodic second subject. The Poem
for cello and piano was written as a commission for the parents of Bryce Somerville. Here lies a vibrantly nocturnal quality. So much of it turns inwards and peers into the soul warming its material by musing on despair or sorrow. Pettersson and Tchaikovsky do something related. Venables always distils melodic comfort from the process but the progress of the music takes you into some dark corners.
Everyone is thorough and well engaged here. The Coull are veterans of English repertoire having previously tackled the Bax (the Quintet with Richard Markham), Bliss (1), Gurney (Western Playland
), Rubbra (1, 2) and Simpson (11) while Mark Bebbington has many Somm discs under his belt.
Venables has his own website
which provides a wealth of supporting information.
A well received Naxos CD
of the Venables songs also appeared in November 2010.
Singing from a same leafy songbook.