American Record Review, by Robert A. Moore

Review of Naxos CD: The English Song Series no. 21

*Critics Choice

This most welcome release is the 21st volume in the English Song Series of Naxos and presents 18 songs of Ian Venables (b.1955), some recorded here for the first time – most important, ‘On the Wings of Love’, five songs for tenor, clarinet, and piano that, according to the excellent note by Graham J. Lloyd, explore the “universal theme of love in its widest possible sense and not just in the realm of human affections”. Venables writes in the tradition of Vaughan Williams, Gurney, and Finzi (as distinct from Britten and Tippett) but with a clear voice of his own.

Lloyd’s notes give a helpful background on Venables and his choice of texts, including a quote from writer reviewer Roderic Dunnett that offers a fair assessment of the contribution Venables is making to English song: “Every now and then a composer emerges who has a remarkable gift of being able to sum up perfectly the spirit of a previous era, and yet draw fresh strength from it to create something invigorating, original, and new [and] he has an enviable ability to direct and shape his musical ideas into powerful and highly expressive statements while at the same time displaying a remarkable gift for melodic and harmonic invention.”

Texts come from many sources, including Lorca, Emperor Hadrian, Yeats, Hardy, Symonds, Tennyson, Millay, and Roethke. His ability to deal with the themes of aging, loneliness, and sadness without becoming heavy-handed brings to mind a marvellous statement by Daniel Barenboim in talking about Schubert’s songs: “A child once gave me a wonderful definition of Schubert. After the Unfinished Symphony she said she liked the music because, if the music’s sad she also had the feeling it was smiling at the same time. And if it was cheerful she felt that it still contained a tear. I find this a wonderful non-musicological definition of Schubert … This music and this world of sound cast such a spell that even depression’s something to be welcomed with delight. That’s the greatness of music. Music doesn’t exist to help us forget life, but to help us understand life.”

No English tenor today is more splendidly at home in this fine music than Andrew Kennedy, winner of the 2005 Cardiff Singer of the World Recital Prize.His voice is more robust and red-blooded than his peers (Bostridge, Gilchrist, and Padmore) and his vocal technique and command of dynamics is thoroughly secure. His ability to produce a decrescendo on releasing a note is extraordinary and gives me the goose bumps. With great liveliness and energy in his singing and a broad palette of vocal colour, Kennedy’s performance is both invigorating and tender.

English song singing doesn’t get better than this. Iain Burnside has been the anchor for this project, and his collaboration again is exemplary. Richard Hosford, principal clarinet of the BBC Symphony, plays superbly. Recorded in the Nimbus studio at Wyastone, the sound is excellent. Naxos has included texts this time, except for a few songs presumably for copyright reasons.