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Ian VENABLES Songs Kevin McLean-Mair (tenor), Graham Lloyd (Piano) Emerald String Quartet recorded July 1997 and 1998 ENIGMA DIGITAL ED10045 [70.22]

The CD is available at £12.00 each from Audiosonic, 6 College Street, Gloucester. Phone: 01452 302280; fax: 01452 302202

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Invite to Eternity (song cycle for tenor and string quartet - four songs)
Love's Voice (song cycle for tenor and piano - four songs)
Acton Burnell for tenor, viola and piano

seven other songs for tenor and pianoGraham Lloyd's expansive sleeve note for this excellently recorded disc containing all the songs (so far) of Ian Venables, claims that the composer "views his song writing as a form of relaxation: a break from the larger abstract compositions which can often dominate the creative mind." I suggest that this is a modest understatement - for these fine songs express a mind deeply involved in the understanding of philosophic argument and in the perennial problem of 'words for music'. The songs, like the poetry contain much dark stuff.

Apart from Warlock's enchanting but trivial (in this context) "Little Trotty Wagtail", no British composer has set to any extent the poets John Clare and John Addington Symonds. The two cycles on this recording of these poets are full of thoughtful poetic music - the accompaniments rich in harmonic colour with which the vocal lines, with their characteristic figuration of augmented intervals -declamatory and introspective rather than lyrical - blend into an integral organic whole.

The first of these cycles "Invite to Eternity" takes four poems of Clare and sets them for voice and string Quartet - an inspired choice of medium for the vacillating emotions of the poet. The throbbing pedal note of the important string introduction conveys the intensity of mood and the essential characteristics of the voice of both poet and composer are epitomised in what amounts to a 'motto' theme at the words 'the thought that cheers this heart of mine is that of love - the music recalling the metaphysical Finzi of 'Dies Natalis'. This characteristic identity recurs at the end of the final song "I am", evoking a deeply shadowed introspective world suffused with Clares melancholy in 'I am the self-consumer of all my woes'. It is noticeable that the music throughout follows the poetic thought, translating and heightening the emotive idea almost to the point of horror (in, for instance, the title song). The final song 'I am'(the very last poem that Clare was to write), with its breath-catching modulation on the final 'sky' proves, despite ending on a monotone, the culmination of high personaI drama.

The choice of John Addington Symonds for the second of the cycles is as unusual. Here again there are strong emotions at play - and although 'Invitation to the Gondola' is more impressionistic, intensely visual with its 'city seen in dreams' as the poet evokes a twilit impression of his (and Sargent's) beloved Venice, the scene is peopled with spectral shades. Throughout the cycle the music is threaded through with expressive melody, the poet's ever conscious obsession with unrequited love awakening in the composer a very personal identification with the poet. I can think of no composer writing today that might reach the heart of Symonds very individual voice as Venables has done here.

The remaining songs on the disc are more lyrical - yet by no means light weight. Hardy as a poet is no less introspective - and in 'A Kiss' pursues the love element to the infinite. 'Flying Crooked' - as succint as a Haiku - is very reminisicent of John Ireland (Venables studied with Arnell - I am reminded of Ireland noting with surprise the influence of Corder extending to a third generation in a pupil of Dale's - and of course Ireland, in a mood of later unfulfilled optimism set lines in 'These things shall be' from Symonds' 'A Vista') And these two songs in particular happily find a place in the pantheon of English song that began with Parry in the early 1900's.

One of the most immediately beautiful of the songs is Venables' early setting (at age 19) of Harold Monro, the protagonist of the Georgian era. The melody, with its echos of 'Danny Boy' is most appealing - and yet the almost Housman-ish sentiment 'You without me, I without you' colours the music. But it is intensely beautiful - I'd recommend the disc for that one revelation! And I must pursue the John Ireland connection, through 'Easter Song' where the imagery of 'The tendrils of the Spring' - the young shoots stirring in the quiet dank earth - is one that pervades Ireland's work. But Venables has an individual voice If this disc is an earnest of his music then his chamber works -which on this sleeve invites interest in such as a Piano Quintet - ought to be known.


Colin Scott-Sutherland

and Rob Barnett adds:-

Ian Venables was a pupil of Richard Arnell at Trinity College of Music and John Joubert at Birmingham. In addition to his many vocal settings exploring the poetry of the British lyric mainstream he has written a piano quintet and a considerable amount of chamber music.

The first cycle's contribution from the string quartet is written in a language that is familiar from the works of Shostakovich and Herbert Howells - a strange juxtaposition you may think but by no means odd here. The songs, which are settings of John Clare, deal with stillness, and supernally dazzling summers. Peter Warlock's witchery music from The Curlew must have been an influence in the case of the second song while Russian Easter Festival brightness pervades the third song and a coursingly mournful passion concludes the last song.

The other songs are extremely imaginative and are artfully touching. Venables has inherited the cloak of C W Orr, Gerald Finzi, Robin Milford and Herbert Howells in his word setting. The music of At Malvern is all moonlight and the lapping of cool waters. The Fortunate Isles the first of the Love's Voice cycle (setting John Addington Symonds) rocks in sleepy dream-glory.

The spate of poetic coups, one after the other, is remarkable and it is pointless to catalogue them all here. Suffice to say that Venables is a sincere new voice adding warm lustre to the roll of British lyric song writers. His talent is not a slender one but one of encouraging span and depth.

In this disc Venables music is helped enormously by the rare voice of Kevin Mclean-Mair whose steady tenor, appealing throatiness, tawny vocal colouring and perfect enunciation are out of the all-too rare school of Ian Partridge and Gerald English.

Full texts and notes. The production, booklet and technical aspects are all highly professional which has a definite Hyperion look to it - indeed it would not have been out of place in their catalogue - such is its quality.

The strongest recommendation for a disc that will be a sure-fire winner with those who love their Moeran, Vaughan Williams, Orr or Butterworth.


Rob Barnett

The CD is available at £12.00 each from Audiosonic, 6 College Street, Gloucester. Phone: 01452 302280; fax: 01452 302202

Ian Venables can be contacted at Enigma Publications, Turrall House, 2 Turrall Street, Barbourne, Worcester WR3 8AJ. Phone: 01905 611570

Note: since writing this review I have also heard Venables' Piano Quintet Op. 27 and the String Quartet Op. 32. Venables proves himself a sturdy melodist writing in the craggiest romantic vein. In him various voices mix, blend, synthesise into a distinctive and burningly intense melos. What are these voices?

In the Quintet they are Finzi, Ravel, Rózsa, Howells (his piano quartet is surely an influence) and Bax (his own 1915 piano quintet - a pinnacle in the repertoire and a symphony in all but instrumentation). None of this suffocates Venables' own creativity and character. His ability to coin tunes all his own and spin them in magical veils of passion and sorrow is undoubted. The first movement and the finale sometimes display the character of Hungarian folk music - Kodaly rather than Bartók.

The string quartet on the other hand offers a superficially thorny facade but glowing beneath it is a work of some passion. Here Ravel (the string quartet), Bartók and Shostakovich are the voices I detect. When Venables leads you to a fine tune, as he does in the middle movement, it is no routine exercise.

When will someone record him commercially?

I commend this composer very strongly indeed. You will know from my description whether you will like this composer's music. RB


Colin Scott-Sutherland


Rob Barnett

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