Invite to Eternity (song cycle for tenor and string quartet - four
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.
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
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
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.
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 http://www.ianvenables.com/
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
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
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