Reviews of Songs on Naxos and Signum by John Quinn
Ian VENABLES (b.1955)
On the Wings of Love, Op.38 for tenor, clarinet and piano (2005-2006) [23:15]
Venetian Songs – Love’s Voice, Op.22 (1994-1995) [15:37]
Midnight Lamentation, Op.6 (1974) [3:42]
Break, break, break, Op.33, No.5 (1999) [2:24]
The November Piano, Op.33, No.4 (1999) [2:56]
Vitae Summa Brevis, Op.33, No.3 (1999) [3:24]
Flying Crooked, Op.28, No.1 (1997) [1:03]
At Midnight, Op.28, No.2 (1997) [3:51]
The Hippo, Op.33, No.6 (1999) [1:28]
At Malvern, Op.24 (1998) [4:22]
A Kiss, Op.15 (1992) [4:01]
Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Iain Burnside (piano); Richard Hosford (clarinet)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK, 23-25 November 2009. DDD
English texts included
NAXOS 8.572514 [66:04]
Invite, to Eternity, Op.31 (1997) [24:21]
Four Songs with String Quartet (arr. Graham Lloyd): A Kiss Op.15; Flying Crooked, Op.28 No.1; The Hippo, Op.33 No 6; At Midnight, Op.28 No.2 (?) [12:15]
String Quartet, Op.32 (1998) [21:01]
Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Dante Quartet (Krysia Osostowicz (violin); Giles Francis (violin); Judith Busbridge (viola); Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello))
rec. 1-3 June 2009, St Paul’s Church, Deptford. DDD
English texts included
SIGNUM SIGCD204 [58:04]
In May I am planning to review a concert in Malvern for Seen and Heard which will include the première of a new cycle of songs by Ian Venables, The Song of the Severn, for baritone, piano and string quartet (details). In preparation for that event I’ve been listening to some more of his music.
These two CDs, which were recorded within a few months of each other, feature the tenor Andrew Kennedy and both display Ian Venables’ talents as a songwriter. I don’t know what it is about English music that so often announces itself to the listener as English, even if, as here, the music is neither modal nor inspired by English folk song. Venables’ music does seem to me to breathe a definite air of Englishness, even when he is not setting texts by English writers. However, I noted with some interest that Ionian Song, the first of the Op. 38 set, is dedicated to the great American composer, Ned Rorem. He is one of the finest of twentieth-century art song composers – and, happily, continues to compose songs in the twenty-first century – and after reading that dedication I hope I wasn’t being suggestible in hearing resonances of Rorem’s music – I wouldn’t put it more strongly than that. Perhaps my thinking is influenced by two traits that these two composers have in common: a genuine melodic gift and a discerning eye for suitable literary texts to set to music.
The Naxos disc includes Venables’ first song, Midnight Lamentation. Though he was only 19 when he wrote it one can find even here the traits which characterise so many of the subsequent songs that I’ve heard. The vocal line is expressive and borne along on a very natural melodic line. The musical style is direct and communicative. Incidentally, the words that are sung are not quite as printed in the booklet.
Ian Venables has several song cycles to his name. Six are mentioned in the Naxos booklet, including the very fine The Pine Boughs Past Music, Op. 39, the first performance of which I reviewed back in 2010. A few months later I reviewed a repeat performance at the Three Choirs Festival. Two other cycles are included on the Naxos disc, while the Signum recital offers a third. On the Wings of Love is written for the rather unusual combination of voice, clarinet and piano, the same forces so wonderfully brought together by Schubert in Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. Ian Venables makes the combination work equally well, albeit in a different way; the voice and the reed instrument often complement each other – as, for instance, in their echoing lyrical phrases in the second song, The Moon Sails Out – at other times the different timbres contrast most effectively. As well as The Moon Sails Out, a delightful song, I enjoyed very much the third of the five songs, Sonnet XI which is gentle at the start and at the end yet rises to great intensity and ardour in the middle. I was also very taken with the concluding When you are Old, a Yeats setting, in which Venables’ music conveys very acutely the wistful reminiscence of times past.
All five songs in Op. 38 use texts by non-English writers, four of them in English translation. For Op. 22 Ian Venables has taken four poems by the English poet and literary critic, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), on whom he is an acknowledged authority. The set is dated 1994-5 but perhaps the rest of them were added to the last one, Love’s Voice, which was commissioned in 1993. I see this is dedicated to Ian Partridge. I wonder if that fine tenor ever sang the song; I could imagine its expressive melodic line and intense mood suiting his voice very well. I don’t think that, in reviewing, I’ve come across a piece dedicated to someone who I’ve met but I have had the pleasure of meeting at several concerts the music-loving lady to whom the third song, The Invitation to the Gondola, is dedicated. It’s a fine setting, fervent in its outer sections and though the middle section is more reflective one can sense that fervour remains present, albeit below the surface. This is a very good set of songs and Andrew Kennedy does them very well.
Among the other songsBreak, break, break, a Tennyson setting, is more vigorous than most in this programme. Vitae Summa Brevis is a deeply-felt response to the poem by Ernest Dowson. Here the vocal lines are long and expansive and the piano part is highly atmospheric. Flying Crooked, to a poem by Robert Graves, is unusual in this collection in that the music is light in tone and heart; it’s an engaging song. That brings me to the one observation – not criticism – that I would make about the songs by Ian Venables which I’ve heard to date. Most of them are quite serious in countenance, often tapping that peculiarly English vein of melancholy. His serious songs are very fine but I wonder if the mixture might be leavened occasionally with a few more light-hearted, even cheerful offerings. There may well be a fair number of such songs within his portfolio but to date I’ve heard some twenty-six by him and, among these, songs that are serious in nature and slow or moderate in tempo seem to predominate.
That point is emphasised in the Signum booklet where the note by Graham J. Lloyd quotes Stephen Banfield’s view that Ian Venables possesses “a genius for melancholy”; that is on display in much of the music on this disc. The cycle Invite, to Eternity is an impressive collection of four settings of poems by John Clare (1793-1864) for tenor and string quartet. Venables’ instinctive ability to write effectively and expressively for the human voice will not be doubted by anyone who has listened to the Naxos CD. Here his affinity for the string quartet is shown to be just as strong. Perhaps it’s the inclusion of strings in the scoring but I thought that in the opening song there was more than a whiff of the – wholly beneficial – influence of Finzi, most markedly at the harmonic resolution on the words “Love so divine”. The second song, which gives the cycle its title, starts innocently enough, as does Clare’s poem, but the burden of the words soon becomes more poignant, even dark, and the hue of Venables’ music darkens in sympathy with the words. The short third song is scherzo-like after which the most extensive song, I am, involves, in Graham Lloyd’s words, “desolate harmonic language”. There’s even greater depth here than in the other songs. It’s a deeply introspective setting, often aching in its emotional response to Clare’s verses. At the very end, in the last three lines, the poet’s mood seems more accepting but Venables’ music remains unsettled. This is a distinguished and eloquent set of songs.
It will be seen that there is an overlap with the Naxos disc in that Signum have included four of the same songs. However, here they are presented in arrangements by Graham J. Lloyd in which a string quartet is substituted for the original piano in the accompaniment. One presumes that these arrangements have the composer’s full approval and to my ears they are extremely successful. Lloyd’s skilful arrangements don’t supplant the piano originals; rather, they complement and expand the keyboard accompaniments. Lloyd says that he has taken advantage of the “many different colours and sonorities available from a string quartet”. He also believes the arrangements “enhanced the overall mood and emotional power of each song.” I agree but I’d add that he’s brought to the selected songs the sustaining capabilities of string instruments and their singing character. I don’t think it’s an accident that in two of the songs, A Kiss and At Midnight, the performances on the Signum disc are quite significantly more expansive than on the Naxos recordings. There’s an extra depth of emotional response in the Signum performances, fine though the Naxos versions are. All four arrangements work very well indeed though the piano versions remain equally valid and important.
The String Quartet is a most accomplished piece, cast in three movements. The first opens with tense, arresting music which is strongly rhythmical but soon (at 1:10) broadens into something slower and more lyrical, albeit there’s no reduction in tension. This passage achieves a big climax before, at 4:12, great vigour and thrust return. The remainder of the movement is powerful and taut. There follows a short movement, lasting less than three minutes in this performance, which is light in texture and essentially genial in character. This provides a fine foil to the preceding movement and, as we shall see, a very necessary interlude before the rigours of the third movement.
This final movement, which plays for just over 11 minutes, is longer than the previous two movements combined. It’s an impressive composition and begins with slow music in which the cello is to the fore. To my ears the music is dark and not a little troubled; the tonality is far from certain yet there’s still a grave beauty to what we hear. There follows (at 2:37) an unsettled section in which there’s a good deal of pizzicato writing. The argument then unfolds through a number of passages, all described in the very helpful note. The music reflects a variety of moods; there’s an undoubted seriousness of purpose at its heart yet one senses a positive tone is gradually being asserted. It’s an ambitious movement and I’m still not sure how it all fits together – how the fugal episode fits in, for example – but I hasten to add that this comment reflects the fact that I need to get to know the music better; it’s certainly not intended as a criticism of the compositional skill. This is certainly a movement – and a work – that will repay careful listening. The quartet is also one that clearly makes significant demands on the players, though these are more than met by the Dante Quartet.
The standard of performance on both discs is uniformly high with Andrew Kennedy in particular proving to be an expressive and committed advocate for Ian Venables’ songs. Both discs present the music in excellent sound and Graham J Lloyd provides notes to match to accompany both releases. Signum provide texts for all the songs, Naxos for most of theirs, except for a few that set copyright texts.
If you are an admirer of Ian Venables’ music you will want both discs but for collectors who are coming new to his art in which disc should you invest? The Naxos release enjoys a price advantage and will appeal to anyone whose primary interest lies in songs. However, the Signum programme offers a wider perspective on the composer’s output. Pressed to choose one I’d opt for the Signum disc on account of its greater musical range. However, I strongly suspect that anyone buying one disc will soon join me in adding the other to their collection.
Two fine collections of the expressive music of Ian Venables.