Ian VENABLES (b. 1955)
Piano Quintet Op. 27 (1995) [27:36]*
Three Pieces for violin and piano Op. 11 (1986) [11:43]
Elegy for cello and piano Op. 2 (1980) [6:47]
Soliloquy for viola and piano Op. 26 (1995) [9:35]
Poem for cello and piano Op. 29 (1997) [8:47]
Mark Bebbington (piano) *
Graham J. Lloyd (piano)
Coull Quartet (Roger Coull and Philip Gallaway (violins), Gustav Clarkson (viola), Nicholas Roberts (cello))
rec. in presence of composer, Abbotsholme School, 2009. DDD
Financial support from Elmley Foundation.
SOMM SOMMCD0101 [64:28]

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 home?

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 stood still.

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 standard repertoire.

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.

David Jennings


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, Romance and Dance 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.

Rob Barnett

Singing from a same leafy songbook.