Ian Venables has justly gained a reputation as being one of the most
important composers of vocal music of our time. He has contributed
an impressive array of songs with piano and chamber accompaniments.
Only recently, his latest offering, The Song of the Severn, Op.43
was heard at Malvern review.
It would be unfair and wrong to suggest that his music-making was
restricted to the muse of song. A few years ago SOMM
released a major retrospective of his chamber music, including the
important Piano Quintet Op. 27. This was received with critical acclaim.
In addition there is a fine Rhapsody for organ, a few choral works
and some pieces for brass ensemble. Up until the present CD release
few people have realised that Venables is also an accomplished writer
for the piano. This should have been obvious to any listeners who
have approached his songs and chamber works (with piano) and have
heard the idiomatic and well-conceived writing for this instrument
that is a major part of the success of these works.
I began my consideration of this CD with the Three Short Pieces,
Op.5 which date from 1986. If any listener is expecting to
find intimations or expansions of Venables’ vocal achievement then
this is not the place to look. What he has provided are three impressions
‘for children.’ Now I am not sure that these pieces are necessarily
for ‘beginners’: I guess they are possibly about Grade 6. The liner-notes
suggest that the ethos of the work is meant to be evocative of childhood
– in other words an adult ‘reflecting’ on their younger days. Other
examples of this in the literature are Debussy’s Children’s Corner,
Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite and many of the piano works by Harry Farjeon
and Alec Rowley. I am not too convinced that these pieces have the
‘lightness’ suggested in the notes. I feel that there is a sadness
and nostalgia that counterbalances the seeming innocence and playfulness.
The ‘Caprice’ is quite a tricky little piece that exploits a rugged
rhythmical figure. The form can be defined as
a ‘freak, whim, fancy’. The Dance of the Teddy Bears is much
less whimsical than the title may suggest. It feels that this is more
of a case of ‘teddies’ that have reached the grand old age of their
‘companions’ and are dancing a stately minuet rather than frolics
‘down in the woods today ...’ The final number of this set is the
serious, reflective and possibly even 'melancholic'
Folk Tune. This is a big powerful piece that clearly reflects
the composer’s respect for Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is built on
an arch form with a commanding climax. My only concern is that this
group of pieces is a little imbalanced. The emotional disparity between
the ‘Caprice’ and the ‘Folk Tune’ is immense. I feel that the latter
could (should?) stand alone as a recital piece.
The Portrait of Janis, Op. 9 is a deeply felt and
often moving miniature. It was composed in the autumn of 2000 and
was first performed by the composer during a visit to California in
the same year. The composer has summed up this work “… the piece is
a wistful evocation of mood, a backward glance, remembering a perfectly
happy moment spent with special friends”. Indeed it is very much about
time and place, ‘recollected in tranquillity’, with one such friend
placed at its centre: Janis. For most of the Portrait the
composer has moved his centre of attention away from the United States
to that of the English landscape. The notes do not tell of the ‘happy
moment’ was a recent or far off event. Whatever the historical and
personal associations, Venables has created a perfectly poised reflection
that balances sadness with tranquillity and a retrospective mood that
I find Oscar Wilde’s story of The Nightingale and the Rose
too hard to bear: it is certainly not one I would choose to read for
entertainment or pleasure. It is not fair to repeat the tale as some
readers may not yet have read it. The tale is a well-written allegory
of selflessness, sacrifice and love. This story has called forth Ian
Venables’ only piece of ‘programme’ music to date. The Nightingale
was originally written (and performed) as a children’s ballet for
the ballerina Marjorie Chater-Hughes, however it was later ‘extensively’
reworked into an ‘impromptu’. As a piece of ‘theatre’ this music charts
the course of the story almost line by line. It is a stunningly beautiful
composition that has nothing to do with ‘children.’ I can only listen
to this work by blanking the story out of my mind: as such, I can
cope with the inherent sadness, heartbreak and tragedy. I do wonder
if Ian Venables will one day produce a major ballet score to stand
beside John McCabe’s Edward II or Joby Talbot’s Alice.
I listened next to the ‘Caprice’ Op.35, which was
commissioned by the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival for their 2001
event. It was premiered by Phillip Dyson. This work is much more powerful
and profound than its title would suggest. The opening motive seems
to pervade much of this music in an almost minimalistic way: yet,
this is no pastiche of Philip Glass or the ramblings of Einaudi. There
is plenty of variety and seeming development. The ‘Caprice’ is designed
in an arch form with a central section that is withdrawn and possibly
even disturbing. The musical material is largely timeless. It is not
possible to say that this or that composer has influenced the music;
however the central section has a kind of Bach-by-way-of-Finzi feel
to it. The opening ‘choppy’ theme is reprised, bringing the work to
a satisfying close – but not without one or two references to material
from the ‘middle eight’ ‘song without words’.
I have never been to Stourhead in Wiltshire, however, listening to
this music (and checking out the website) makes we want to ‘go west’
to see this stunning house and its gardens. The Stourhead
Follies, Op.4 was inspired by a visit made by the composer
in 1984. The liner notes point out that this left a ‘deep impression’
on the composer and resulted in music that reveals the ‘evocative
atmosphere of the gardens.’ The key to this work is in the subtitle
– ‘Four Romantic Impressions.’ Nevertheless, this is music that can
stand alone without the allusions to the topographical markers. This
is not ‘impressionistic’ music as such, but a reflection of the composer’s
feelings, moods and, I guess, personal memories of the visit.
The opening number is entitled ‘Temple to Apollo’. It does not require
a great knowledge of piano music to divine that Rachmaninov and Ravel
(favourites from Venables’ youth) are lurking in the shadows here.
The composer does not parody these ‘greats’ but uses their pianism
to create an intense and vibrant mood that is quite personal.
‘Palladio’s Bridge’ is almost barcarolle-like with its ‘hypnotically
lilting rhythmic figures.’ It is another excellent example of Venables’
ability to make a ‘backward glance o’er a travell’d road.’ This is
not written in a smiling pastoral mood as such: there are dark things
here that do not feature in a carefree summer’s day in the policies
of a big country house.
The third ‘impression’ is ‘Pantheon’ which is quite short, but vibrant
and largely untroubled in its mood. The liner notes suggest that the
insistent rhythms conjur[e] up a mood of Bacchanalian excess and joyful
abandon. The harmonies here are drier and colder: the theme is almost
nautical, shanty-like in its statement.
‘The Grotto’ makes a fine conclusion to these four impressions. There
is a stasis and sadness here that acts as a foil to much that has
transpired. It is quite a long number, but the hypnotic nature of
the music makes it one of those pieces that grab hold of you and draws
you into the mood. It is hauntingly beautiful and, for me, sums up
much that Venables has expressed in succeeding years.
The Stourhead Follies may not be typical of British Music
of the late twentieth century, it may not be representative of Ian
Venables’ musical achievement to date, yet this is an engaging and
moving work that can stand alongside many pieces composed by Bridge,
Ireland and Bax.
The Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H. Op.1 (1975, rev
1980) is a big work. Written when the composer was only twenty years
old, it is much more than a student ‘exercise’ or the extravagant
explorations of youth. The work was called forth after the death of
the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and was subtitled ‘In Memoriam
DSCH’. It was given the Op.1 and, not surprisingly, represents the
composer’s earliest mature work for pianoforte. I am about the same
age as Venables, yet I never latched onto Shostakovich in those years
(or since). I was more impressed by Britten and Tippett at that time.
However, Venables was immensely inspired by the Russian’s Symphonies,
string quartets and the monumental Preludes and Fugues for piano.
The key to this work has been given by the composer – ‘I was
trying in this work to create a similar sound world, not to copy it,
but to refract it through an Englishman’s imagination.’ To what extent
this has been successful must fall to reviewers who are better acquainted
with Shostakovich’s music than I am. From the point of view of music-qua-music
I believe that this Sonata works extremely well.
The work is written in three movements: the first is effectively in
sonata form and makes use of the Russian composer’s characteristic
device of D.S.C.H. (D, E flat, C and B natural) as a key element in
its formal construction. There is a structural balance between a ‘harrowing
intensity’ in some passages and the ultimate serenity of the coda.
The middle movement is a short scherzo which is designed to ‘mirror’
Shostakovich’s sense of humour. This is complex music with a huge
variety of pianistic devices that presents considerable demand on
the pianist. The final section of this Sonata is a long, intense ‘adagio’
which has been described as a ‘threnody.’ This song of mourning is
presented in deeply ‘sombre mood’ with few flashes of light piercing
the darkness. The music builds up to a climax that sees the virtual
abolition of rhythm or key centre.
Ian Venables’ Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H. is an impressive work by
any standards: for it to be the first major offering from his pen
makes it even more remarkable. The listener will be moved and ultimately
satisfied by the working out of this Sonata. Whether it is possible
to predicate Venables’ later music from this fine Op.1 is a matter
for further listening and exploration. It is a fact that the sombre,
reflective and often ‘valedictory’ mood that infuses much of his music
to date is already present in these pages.
Ian Flint has provided the excellent liner notes: I have relied heavily
on these for this review as virtually all these works are ‘premiere
recordings’ and there are no discussion or analysis available elsewhere
(except for Venables’ website).
I was hugely impressed with Graham J. Lloyd’s performance of all this
music. He has a sympathy for, and understanding of, Venables’ aesthetic
that discloses itself in virtually every bar of the music.
I would commend this CD to all British music enthusiasts. It is the
perfect complement to the increasing number of CDs that showcase Ian
Venables’ undoubted mastery of English song and chamber music. Other
desiderata must be the three important works for brass ensemble including
the Triptych for Brass and Percussion, op.21 and the Three
Bridges Suite for Jazz Ensemble Op.18.
Roderic Dunnett has also listened to this disc
Naxos's adoption of Ian Venables as one of their composers
provides the clearest evidence of this composer's burgeoning,
well-earned reputation. The first appearance of Venables' music
on the label, with tenor Andrew Kennedy and accompanist Iain Burnside
included the astonishing Venetian Songs, which class as one of the
most exciting cycles by any living British composer. No surprise,
then, that Venables was also the first composer still alive to be
included (alongside John Ireland, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams, Britten,
Warlock, Quilter and others) on Naxos's superb English Song
Now, after Burnside's refinement and eloquent advocacy, a pianist
of like calibre, Graham J. Lloyd, has tackled the piano solo items
of Venables' engaging chamber output (which includes a riveting,
Bartók-inspired String Quartet, recorded with eight songs by Kennedy
and the Dante Quartet on a companion Signum disc, SIGCD204).
One finds on this piano disc a composer mostly younger but every bit
as accomplished as on the songs discs: several works here, most notably
an Angst-ridden three-movement tribute to Shostakovich, Sonata: 'In
Memoriam DSCH' - actually Venables' opus 1 - were written
in Venables' early twenties, at the very outset of his career,
and if momentarily overstretched despite a superb and sympathetic
performance, reveal a precocious gift for affectionate pastiche which
surely underlines something about Venables the (young) man.
What makes this whole richly endowed, 13-track disc so uplifting -
apart from the wonderfully chosen cover, an extraordinarily coloured,
fabulously observed, Turneresque painting by Richard Corbett (b.1969)
- is first, that Venables invariably writes in an immensely approachable
and enjoyable vein, and even more important, that Graham Lloyd's
playing, forceful and assertive where needed, is quite ravishing.
Here is a pianist whose left hand sings, who brings out melody where
others might miss it, who can capture the hidden layers in the music
and make buried detail manifest. Just listen to the sylph-like patterns
of 'Stourhead Follies', composed after a 1984 visit
to those evocative gardens near Mere, Wiltshire, where in the music
you almost see the Roman-inspired fountains bubbling up; the passionate
ending to 'Folk Tune' (the last of Three Short Pieces,
Op.5); or the delicate, Ravelian melody that eddies tentatively from
mysterious, hidden depths at the start of Venables' opus 8
Impromptu 'The Nightingale and the Rose'. Venables'
love of the Classical ('Temple to Apollo', 'Pantheon'
- or compare his setting of the Emperor Hadrian ('Epitaph'),
from his cycle 'On The Wings of Love', on the Naxos
song disc mentioned) also calls to mind Szymanowski - not an influence,
but likewise a composer who made complex mythical figures focal to
his piano and chamber output.
Lloyd's playing is beautifully articulate and alluring. You
can find a like eloquence in his recorded accompaniments, a few seasons
ago, to members of the Coull Quartet in Venables' both early
and later solo works for violin, viola and cello, recorded with a
mesmerising Piano Quintet on the Somm label (SOMMCD
The composer could not ask for a more empathetic interpreter; indeed,
it is satisfying to find on Naxos, virtually out of the blue, such
a warm, deeply questing, fresh-sounding piano interpreter, whose playing
- perhaps in Russian or American music - one would gladly hear more
The opening 'Caprice' (2001, so a much later work) typifies
the kind of scintillating scherzo Venables periodically pulls out
of a hat in his solo songs ('Flying Crooked', on the
Signum disc mentioned above, is surely a masterly example), though
this outwardly jaunty Caprice also embraces a musing central section:
a kind of lulling Promenade, conjuring an Impressionistic ambience
touched on quite a lot in Venables' early keyboard pieces.
The Wyastone Leys acoustic, one of Britain's best recording
studios, works wonders. Any enthusiast for British music, or indeed
for any modern or romantic piano repertoire, would get huge pleasure
from adding this disc to their collection. Information, worklists
and details of Venables' music can be found at ianvenables.com