In Graham J. Lloyd’s booklet with this new recording of chamber music by British composer Ian Venables, the pianist / writer is quick to draw a parallel between the priorities of Venables, and those of the American composer Samuel Barber. Whether this is an allusion Venables would be happy to countenance I couldn’t comment, but there certainly seems a palpable resonance here, both as regards the expansiveness of lyrical impulse and sumptuousness of the musical landscape. Moreover, it is hard to resist parallels with a British composer who died the year after Venables was born (1955), Gerald Finzi, whose reputation as song-smith par excellence has doubtless steered the song-writing ambitions of many a young contemporary British Composer.
Beyond this it is surely better to judge the music on its own merits, of which there are many, since regardless of heritage, Venables already has a distinctive voice of his own. I notice he has thus far picked up strong reviews for his vocal music, with the likes of Ian Partridge and Roderick Williams adding to a list of singers keen to get their fingers in the pie. With this new recording, the composer looks set to plough his furrow even deeper. There is an enjoyable selection of piece here, all involving string instruments, three of which are premiere and all of which were recorded in the presence of the composer last year at Abbotsholme School in Staffordshire.
The kingpin here is the lush three-movement Piano Quintet, Op.27, composed in 1995, the first movement of which is delightfully captured by the Coull Quartet and Mark Bebbington. The music is highly expressive and easy to follow – in fact, the strictness of its formal construction belies its unstuffy, highly engaging personality, and the word, ‘espressivo’ is included in each of its movements, even in the playful finale, which for me ranks among the more Barberesque pieces of music on the recording. Venables moulds his rich textures with real sensitivity, and the piano part always earns its keep too, frequently working in octaves at the top of its register. The ensemble remains tremendously vivacious and impassioned throughout the piece, and I must remark on how glowing Somm’s recording itself comes over.
My first awareness of the Coull Quartet was with its 1990 ASV recording of the Bridge and Elgar Piano Quintets (with pianist Allan Schiller), which remains one of my all-time favourites, and in many ways this disc strums similar heartstrings. There is much sentimentality in the writing, it’s true, and Venables can’t resist closing off the rollicking finale to his 27-minute Quintet with tranquil cyclical references to the earlier movements. Who said tuneful music is dead? Listen to the Three Pieces for violin and piano, Op.11 (1986) and reconsider. ‘Pastorale’, ‘Romance’ and ‘Dance’ each blend the carefree with the poetic, frequently darting between the two, and Venables never ignores the opportunity for a sweet melody, even in the edgier, mildly schizophrenic ‘Dance’. I assume the violinist here is Roger Coull, although I can’t find a reference, with pianist Lloyd adding much to the sense of grandeur in the music.
The Elegy, for cello and piano, Op. 2 (1980) played by Nicholas Roberts and Lloyd, is an enraptured piece also, sporting an unmistakable Elgarian pathos, while the Soliloquy for viola and piano, Op. 26 (written in the same year as the Piano Quintet), featuring Gustav Clarkson, achieves a beautifully poignant presence throughout the highly demanding range of colours Venables summons. The disc finishes with Poem for cello and piano, Op. 29, a rather darker differently orientated work, characteristics captured imaginatively in the playing. Indeed, the performances are always interesting and sensitive to the mood, and the resolutely British flavour of the music remains in the mouth for some time after.