Ian VENABLES (b. 1955)
The Song of the Severn
The Song of the Severn, Op. 43 (2013) [22:41]
The Pine Boughs Past Music, Op. 39 (2010) [18:28]
Four Songs with String Quartet (arr. Graham J. Lloyd)
Flying Crooked, Op. 28, No 1 [1:11]
A Kiss, Op 15 [4:43]
Evening Bells, Op. 31, No 3 [2:16]
The Night has a Thousand Eyes, Op. 41, No 2 (2012) [3:24]
Break, break, break, Op. 33, No 5 [2:46]
Midnight Lamentation, Op. 6 (1974) [4:09]
The Hippo, Op. 33, No 6 [1:34]
The Invitation to the Gondola, Op. 22, No 3 [4:49]
Frutti di Mare, Op. 41, No. 1 (2011) [4:14]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Carducci String Quartet; Graham J. Lloyd (piano)
rec. 2014, St. Michael’s Church, Summertown, Oxford
English texts included
Reviewed (BW) as 24/96 download from hyperion-records.co.uk (also available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless, all with pdf booklet).

I was delighted to receive this CD for review because I attended the premières of both of the song-cycles which here receive their first recordings. I reviewed both of them for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. The Pine Boughs Past Music was commissioned to mark the 80th anniversary of Gloucester Music Society in 2010 and was first performed by Roderick Williams, accompanied by Andrew West (review). A few months later I heard Williams perform them again at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, partnered on that occasion by Susie Allen (review). On both occasions Ian Venables’ cycle was placed in a programme of English song and that’s right and proper because these songs belong very firmly indeed in that fine tradition – as do all the songs here recorded. The Song of the Severn was first performed in May 2013 at the closing concert of the 110th anniversary season of Malvern Concert Club, one of the founders of which was Sir Edward Elgar (review). That first performance was given by the present artists with the exception that Tom Poster played the piano part, which is here taken by Graham J. Lloyd.

The earlier of the two cycles, The Pine Boughs Past Music, is a homage to Ivor Gurney. It comprises four songs, the first three of which are settings of poems by Gurney; I don’t recall hearing any other musical settings of the poems in question. ‘My heart makes songs on lonely roads’ is a 1917 poem which is concerned with Gurney’s unrequited love for a nurse who had ministered to him in hospital. It’s essentially a gently melancholic setting, rather as one imagines Gurney himself might have set the words, though the third and final stanza is more impassioned. ‘Soft Rain’ dates from 1926/7 and contains the line that gives the cycle its title. The music comes in long, intense lines, which Roderick Williams sustains marvellously and the contour of the vocal line often takes the singer into the upper register of his voice. Williams is very expressive in his delivery, not least in the quiet intense ending. ‘The Wind’, written in 1929, is held by Gurney scholars as his last poem. Once again the music unfolds in long lines the effect of which is heightened by the evenness of Williams’ vocal production. To close the cycle Ian Venables turned to another poet, Leonard Clark (1905-1981) and his poem ‘In Memoriam: Ivor Gurney’, which Venables accurately describes as “a haunting elegy to Gurney’s everlasting memory.” The setting begins in hushed tones but very gradually expands in both volume and emotional intensity until the vocal line peaks in ecstasy with the piano part recalling the chimes of the bells of Gloucester Cathedral; it’s these bells that have the last word. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that Gurney – and later Gurney at that – is the subject of this cycle, the music is melancholy and sometimes dark in tone. These are fine, well-wrought and expressive songs and the present performance by Roderick Williams and Graham J. Lloyd is surely definitive, though I hope other singers won’t be daunted by that because these songs deserve to be widely known.

If the focus of The Pine Boughs Past Music is inevitably Gloucestershire-centred, Venables “makes amends” to Worcestershire, his adopted home county for many years, with The Song of the Severn. The five poems which he has set in this cycle for baritone and piano quintet focus on the great river which runs through and, in many ways, defines the county. ‘On Malvern Hill’ is an impressive opening song. It sets a poem by John Masefield which recalls the battle in the county between Caractacus and the Roman legions. The central two stanzas address the battle and the music is suitably dramatic: Williams is commanding here against a powerful accompaniment. As the music winds down again I love the delicate cantabile violin line that holds centre stage for a while alongside the singer; here it’s winningly played by Matthew Denton. There follows a Housman setting, ‘How clear, how lovely bright’. The poem reflects the poet’s unrequited love for Moses Jackson and Venables’ response to the text is suitably anguished and deeply felt in the accompaniment as well as in the vocal line. ’Elgar’s Music’ is in a somewhat lighter tone: the composer describes it as a “lyrical intermezzo”. The music contains an unconscious reference to ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ from Elgar’s Sea Pictures – you can hear it in the gently oscillating violin figure right at the start. The quotation was, apparently, completely coincidental but it struck me that the long arm of coincidence has reached out even further than, perhaps, Ian Venables realised because Roderick Williams, for whom this cycle was written, is a pioneering male-voice exponent of Elgar’s cycle, as I was reminded only recently (review).

The fourth song is another Masefield setting, ‘Laugh, and be merry’. This is a bluff and hearty, scherzo-like composition. The music is given a deliberately gawky gait by the use of 7/4 time, which mirrors the somewhat uneven metre of Masefield’s lines. Finally comes ‘The River in December’. This richly atmospheric song is redolent of the appearance of the Severn in a bare wintry landscape. The countenance of the music is pretty serious. At the end there’s a gradual fade-out as the singer repeatedly sings “Remember me”. I think this is a good device since it emphasises that, whatever else has happened down the ages, the river just flows on and on.

I was impressed with The Song of the Severn at my first hearing of it and the opportunity for deeper and repeated listening that this recording offers has increased my admiration. These are eloquent and expertly crafted songs, each one of which evidences a strong and thoughtful response to the text. Furthermore, the decision to use a piano quintet rather than just a piano to accompany the singer was inspired; the greater variety of texture adds considerably to the success of the cycle. Each of the songs is impressive in its own right and heard as a set they make a genuine impact. If I have a criticism it is that the chosen poems and the tone of the music is predominantly serious – I find a certain seriousness even in the third and fourth songs. What I suppose I miss in this collection is the light-hearted side of the Severn; the promise of Spring or the beauty of the river in Summer. Still, that’s very much a subjective view and The Song of the Severn is still an impressive achievement. The composer surely could not have wished for a finer première recording.

The two cycles are new to disc but the remaining songs have all been recorded before. Indeed, Roderick Williams himself has previously recorded three of them: Midnight Lamentation, Flying Crooked and A Kiss (SOMMCD 057). However, only the first of these is really a duplication because the other two songs are performed here not with piano accompaniment, as on the SOMM disc, but in arrangements for string quartet by Graham J. Lloyd. I’ve heard these before in a recording by the tenor, Andrew Kennedy (review). However, anyone who has that disc already shouldn’t be concerned at duplication. For one thing, Kennedy only sings two of the quartet arrangements that Williams and the Carduccis offer here. Furthermore, it’s valuable to hear the music sung by both a high and low voice.

I think Lloyd’s arrangements work extremely well and the four that are here recorded are all very successful. The wistful introduction to A Kiss, a Hardy setting, is marvellously played by the Carduccis and Williams’ singing is expertly controlled. It seems to me that Venables’ music fits Hardy’s nostalgic sentiments like a glove in what is a beautiful and thoughtful setting. The Night has a Thousand Eyes has an extraordinarily concentrated atmosphere, the music slow and solemn. The string quartet writing, albeit this is an arrangement, put me in mind of the sound world of the Shostakovich string quartets, though I may be wide of the mark there. This is a deep song and it’s splendidly performed here.

The remaining five songs are given with piano accompaniment. By chance I heard Roderick Williams sing The Hippo just a few days ago; he gave it as a delicious encore to his Three Choirs Festival recital (review). On that occasion seeing Williams’ deliberately laid-back rendition added significantly to the fun. But even without the visual element this present performance is a delight. The Invitation to the Gondola is a fine song. The central two stanzas have a sense of gentle rapture while the outer stretches of the song are more overtly ardent, even flamboyant. Midnight Lamentation is Venables’ earliest song, dating from 1974. The music is direct and heartfelt and I find it very beautiful. Roderick Williams sings it with great sensitivity, a sensitivity which is matched by the playing of Graham J. Lloyd, the dedicatee of the song. Incidentally, the text printed in the booklet differs quite a bit from the words which are sung.

The more I hear of Ian Venables’ songs the more I admire them. For one thing he is a genuine melodist. Furthermore, not only is he discerning in his selection of texts but also he is acutely responsive to the words he chooses to set. The fact that Venables has such an evident care for words means that Roderick Williams, himself always highly attuned to the texts he sings, is ideally suited to interpret them. As you’ll have gathered from my comments above, the performances on this disc, not just by Williams but also by his collaborators, are consistently excellent.

The recorded sound is very good and Ian Venables own booklet notes give us an ideal introduction to what we are to hear.

Ian Venables is a significant contributor to the English song repertoire and tradition. I would urge all those who appreciate English songs to investigate this excellent CD.

John Quinn

Another review ...

There are several elements of déjà-vu about this recording. Most obviously, Roderick Williams has already given us three of the songs with piano on a collection entitled Severn and Somme (SOMMCD057 – articleDL Roundup March 2011). Somm also offer four of the songs with piano contained on the new CD on SOMMCD063 (Nathan Vale, tenor, and Ian Plummer, piano – reviewreviewDL Roundup March 2011).

There is also a recording of four of these songs on an earlier Signum recording, At Midnight (SIGCD204, Andrew Kennedy and the Dante Quartet – review) and Andrew Kennedy has given us others on a Naxos CD entitled On the Wings of Love (8.572514 – reviewreview). Given the quality of the music and the performances on all of these, I’m not going to complain about the overlaps.

The Song of the Severn has not been recorded before. There’s more déjà-vu here: this is a song cycle that Ralph Vaughan Williams might have gone on to compose after On Wenlock Edge. There’s nothing at all wrong with that in my book – quite the contrary – but this is the place to stop reading if you still think VW the embodiment of the cowpat school or were expecting something challengingly avant-garde: Venables’ music is conservative in the best sense. There’s only one poem by Housman, How clear, how lovely bright, but the two poems by Masefield, On Malvern Hill and Laugh and be Merry are very much in the Housman mould and the use of piano and string quartet as accompaniment is evocative of On Wenlock Edge.

The other parallel is with Ivor Gurney, whose Ludlow and Teme is coupled with On Wenlock Edge and Venables’ Songs of Eternity and Sorrow on yet another Signum/Andrew Kennedy recording (SIGCD112 – article).

I used to dislike VW’s On Wenlock Edge – probably because a University friend over-egged it – but I long ago came to love it and I’ve also fallen in love with the music of Ian Venables, so I not only expected to enjoy the new recording, I was greatly looking forward to it. Provided, of course, that the performances lived up to expectation, which they certainly have.

In fact, I had no advance concerns about Roderick Williams: it’s in no way his fault that I found a Naxos recording of music by Butterworth, Gurney, Finzi and Vaughan Williams something of a disappointment, rather that’s because I still harken after the narration of John Westbrook in VW’s Oxford Elegy in preference to Jeremy Irons on the new recording (8.573426 – DL News 2014/14). His contribution is part of the success of Hyperion’s recording of the Duruflé Requiem with Westminster Abbey Choir (CDA68020 – reviewDownload News 2014/12).

It’s the two cycles which open the recording that appeal the most, the second of them, The Pine Boughs, consisting of settings of three poems by Ivor Gurney – another of Venables’ links with the past - and one in tribute to Gurney by Leonard Clark. That’s not to imply that the other songs are trivial – far from it – but they are something of an anti-climax after those two very fine cycles.

The recording, as heard in 24/96 download, does full justice to the performances and the booklet, with notes by Ian Venables himself, could hardly be bettered. At £12 the 24-bit download costs less than the CD when postage costs are taken into consideration, but there’s a 16-bit CD-quality download for £7.99. Whether you go for the disc or the download, only those who expect modern music to sound angular need hesitate. Sample/stream from Qobuz, but there’s no booklet there. Now I must investigate Venables’ chamber music (Somm SOMMCD101 and Signum SIGCD204).

Brian Wilson

Support us financially by purchasing this from