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Philip VENABLES (b. 1979)
Below the Belt
The Revenge of Miguel Cotto [13:49]
Metamorphoses after Britten [9:28]
Klaviertrio im Geiste [11:38]
Numbers 76-80: Tristan und Isolde [14:30]
Numbers 91-95 [9:15]
Illusions [14:01]
rec. LSO St. Luke’s, London
NMC D238 [7316]

I must first admit to being a bit thick when it comes to this disc; when I requested it I just saw the name Venables and thought it a disc by the composer, Ian Venables (b. 1955), whose music is deeply rooted in the English vocal and chamber music traditions; how mistaken I was! The music of Philip Venables on the other hand identifies with the LGBT community and deals with various themes including sexuality, politics and violence. Philip Venables has become known mainly through his operas and stage works, but also for his collaborations with artists, such as the Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon and the visual artist David Hoyle, whose collaboration led to Illusions in 2015, which is included on this disc.

The opening work on this disc, The Revenge of Miguel Cotto, dates from 2012 and reflects on a true story of two boxers, which is set in five sections. The first section, ‘Love’, is mainly for two narrators with sparse instrumentation; this means that when the second section, ‘Fight’, begins with its blaring trombones and percussion it comes as a complete contrast to ‘Love’. In the third section, ‘Crushed Spanish’, the musical line is mainly led by the vocalists, with the confused text indicating the punch-drunk character, while the tender string sound of the next section, ‘They Are Not Like Us’, harks back to an older musical style with the text spoken over the top. The final movement, ‘Ban’, sees the return of the trombones and a baying vocal line. This is a thought-provoking work, one that makes good use of silence, especially in the first movement.

My favourite pieces on this disc are the two instrumental works, Metamorphoses after Britten and Klaviertrio im Geiste, both of which are, in their own way, quite appealing. The four movements of Metamorphoses after Britten, ‘A Mountain’, ‘Fixation’, ‘Flowers’ and ‘Fountains’ are used with great effect as boundaries between other works, with Melinda Maxwell’s solo oboe playing being excellent and intense throughout. The booklet notes say of Klaviertrio im Geiste that “With the title in the language not only of Beethoven but also of Venables’ own adopted country, this is both a ‘piano trio in spirit’ and also, perhaps more tellingly, the ghost of a piano trio …”. The Trio uses Beethoven’s ‘Ghost Trio’ as a starting point, utilising its “notes, tempo ideas, gestures, Figurations”, with the resulting Trio nearly as far away from Beethoven as one could get, whist remaining adherent to the concept of a piano trio; the resulting music is mesmerising at times, so much so that I wished for a little more.

The two works built around numbers, Numbers 76-80: Tristan und Isolde and Numbers 91-95, are quite different in texture. The first of these sets narrated passages in unison, pitted against some intense writing for string quartet; this is contrasted with the almost ‘shriekspiel’ passage of No. 78. The other Numbers Piece is unlike the first in the way the text is spoken over the music. The music is quite tender at times, with the sonorities of the flute and harp working well against the spoken text especially when shouted out.

You are warned that the disc includes obscene and offensive language, not that I found it that bad; it comes in the final work on this disc, Illusions, which try as I might, I just don’t get on with. I have listened to it a few times, and even followed the link to the video presentation of the collaboration with David Hoyle, but I find it difficult to comprehend. I think part of the problem is the crass text by David Hoyle, which seems angry and dismissive, whilst the music at times resembles that of a 1970’s game show. The section about two minutes in which states “You Know” is the most memorable section, here Venables breaks away from the games-show music, with his more aggressive style being the best bit of the work. It is hard to listen to, and its not that much easier to watch either, but I will persevere with it a bit longer in order to see if I change my mind.

For the main part the performances and recorded sound are very good, as already stated, Melinda Maxwell is excellent, with hers being the stand out performance, but there is also some very fine ensemble work here. The booklet notes help in understanding where Philip Venables is coming from with his music and there is much to enjoy on this disc.

Stuart Sillitoe

The Revenge of Miguel Cotto [13:49]
Leigh Melrose (baritone), Dario Dugandzic (baritone), Ashot Sarkissjan (violin), Ciaran McCabe (violin), James Widden (violin), Ian Watson (accordion), Graham Lee (trombone), Lee Boorer (trombone), Simon Baker (trombone), Matthew West (percussion), Oliver Lowe (percussion) / Richard Baker
Metamorphoses after Britten [9:28]
Melinda Maxwell (oboe)
Klaviertrio im Geiste [11:38]
Phoenix Piano Trio
Numbers 76-80: Tristan und Isolde [14:30]
Natalie Raybould, Lewis Bretherton, George Chambers, Ashley Mercer (vocals)
Ligeti String Quartet / Richard Baker
Numbers 91-95 [9:15]
Nick Blackburn (narrator), Katie Bicknell (flute),
Olivia Jaguers (harp), Matthew West (wood block)
Illusions [14:01]
David Hoyle (narrator) London Sinfonietta / Richard Baker

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