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Ian VENABLES (b. 1955)
Love Lies Beyond the Tomb – Songs and Song Cycles
The Way Through, Op 33 No 1 (1999) [3:14]
Aurelia, Op 37 No 3 (2016) [3:19]
Chamber Music III, Op 41, No 6 (2014) [4:49]
Love lives beyond the tomb, Op 37 No 1 (2004) [4:21]
It Rains, Op 33 No 2 (2000) [5:44]
I caught the changes of the year, Op 45 No 1 [3:53]
Remember This, Op 40, Cantata for Soprano, Tenor, String Quartet and Piano (2008-11) [30:49]
Through These Pale Cold Days, Op 46, Song Cycle for Tenor, Viola and Piano (2016) [22:29]
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Carducci String Quartet
Graham J. Lloyd (piano)
rec. 2019, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London

Most visitors to this site will agree, I think, that with so much wonderful music being written today there can be no shame in admitting ignorance. Some time ago, and thanks to MusicWeb, I was introduced to the brilliantly inventive music of Alec Roth. I am sometimes reminded of Roth’s music when listening to these songs by Ian Venables, a composer who, like Roth before him, was new to me. Both composers share an enviable sensitivity to words, and both write music that is of our time but also accessible. A photograph on Ian Venables’s website shows him in front of the grave of Samuel Barber, another composer with whom he shares affinities. At other moments I am reminded of Copland, and especially of his glorious Emily Dickinson settings. These references are offered simply to give some idea of what to expect for those who, like me, come to this music for the first time.

The programme begins with five songs for soprano and piano. They are sung with great sensitivity and sumptuous tone by Mary Bevan. A composer couldn’t wish for better advocacy. The song that gives the album its title was commissioned by Gertrude Bliss, the widow of Arthur Bliss, one-time Master of the Queen’s Music, to celebrate her own 100th birthday. It was in this song that I caught the most immediate echoes of the music of Alec Roth. A setting of a poem by John Clare, the inherent sadness of the subject, leavened in the poem by careful choice of words, is reflected in the setting, whose piano accompaniment stubbornly refuses to be too sombre or gloomy. It is in complete contrast to the following Edward Thomas setting, a song which, despite its bitterness, closes with a triumphant top B flat from the singer and a long and eloquent piano postlude.

When Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother died in 2002, the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, was faced with the unenviable task of producing a work in her memory. The result was Remember This. Four sections recount the end of the subject’s life, including her lying in state and burial. Interspersed with these are passages evoking the Queen Mother by reference to her particular interests and enthusiasms. One of these is horseracing, and it is a measure of the poet’s skill that the tone of the poem does not suffer. Ian Venables was immediately taken with the poem, writing in the booklet that the words chose him, rather than the other way round. Two voices are required, a soprano and a tenor, plus a string quartet and piano. The songs are shared more or less equally between the two singers, and it is not readily apparent why one was chosen over the other at any given point. Apart from a short exchange at the very beginning – where, unusually, the composer sets the poem’s title to music – the only time they appear together is in the final song, where they sing first in unison and then in imitative counterpoint. The final sung phrases are once again in unison, and rise to a passionate climax. A long coda features the strings over regular, march-like chords from the piano. The poem begins with the words ‘Think of the failing body’, and another section begins ‘Think of the flower-lit coffin’, but the work is solemn rather than sombre. ‘On the crest of the Downs’, the horseracing section, is the only fast music in the work. Given that the preceding soprano songs and the following song cycle are all rather similar in mood, you probably won’t get the best from this fine piece if you listen to the whole collection in one sitting.

The musical language of ‘The Send-Off’, the first song of Through These Pale Cold Days, is more dissonant than anything hitherto in this recital. I once owned an Argo LP with Richard Johnson reading this Wilfred Owen poem. His reading was one of resigned sadness, whereas anger is very much present in Venables’s setting. The viola, discreet in this song, has its first extended role at the beginning of the third song, a setting of Isaac Rosenberg. The poet was Jewish – and suffered for it during his active service. The viola’s melody, so the booklet note tells us, is meant to evoke Klezmer music. ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ begins jauntily in the major key with the description of the young soldier who, in music that disintegrates into shocking dissonance, ‘put a bullet through his brain.’ The final song is a setting of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, an army chaplain beloved by the servicemen with whom he worked. The poem, a simple, two-verse meditation on remembrance, brings the cycle to a tranquil, though no less bitter, conclusion.

I first encountered Allan Clayton on YouTube, performing Gerald Barry’s Canada at the Proms, that particular video no longer available, sadly. This music could hardly be more different, but you’d go a long way to hear finer singing than this. Venables is fortunate indeed to have two such consummate performers. Graham J. Lloyd provides exemplary piano parts, plus a long and detailed booklet note to complement the composer’s own. Venables is also well served by the Carducci String Quartet. Much of this music haunts the mind, even after a single hearing. No lover of English song should miss it.

William Hedley
Previous review: John Quinn

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