Review of the Composer’s CD of Songs by John Steane

A Review of the Composer’s CD of Songs
By John Steane.

A welcome for a composer new to the catalogue, and especially from his song-cycle with string quartet.

Ian Venables is an English composer not hitherto represented in the CD catalogue, yet he has a substantial reputation and output, particularly of chamber music. The introductory essay to this volume of songs is by the pianist Graham Lloyd, who describes his music as ‘unashamedly romantic in style’. In as far as it is the obvious alternative to most modern -isms, ‘romantic’ may be an apt term; yet at his best, as in the cycle Invite, to Eternity, Venables impresses as a songwriter in the line of, say Gerald Finzi, and ‘romantic’ seems not quite the word for that.

Invite is for voice and string quartet, which of itself, perhaps produces a spare style and sharper definition than do piano accompaniments of the other songs. Certainly the opening number in that cycle, with a suggestion of early Tippett, encourages confidence: the ideas are strong, the texts (poems by John Clare) chosen with discernment and set with feeling. That is the most recent of those compositions, written in 1997 and the one I myself find most appealing. Of the others, my favourite is Acton Burnell, which incorporates an imaginatively written part for viola; my (tentative) feeling is that the piano makes life a bit too comfortable for the music’s good. Most crucially, Ivor Gurney’s mercilessly realistic poem, Pain, with its ‘army of bedrenched scarecrows in rows’ is almost affronted by the inescapable drawing-room associations of the piano. A suggestion only, but an arrangement for string quartet, as in the cycle, might make a considerable, and beneficial, difference.

The singing voice is considerately treated, its lyrical and expressive qualities explored in happy conjunction. Ian Partridge gave the first performance of one of these songs (‘Love’s Voice’), and Kevin McClean-Mair, the tenor in this recording, is of a similar vocal ‘build’, at least in his capacity to elide tenor and countertenor elements. He is admirably firm and without harshness, but I do find elimination of vibrancy an enfeebling feature of the English school of singing as represented here. He is sympathetically accompanied by Graham Lloyd, and the Emerald Quartet plays with distinction. This is an interesting record with, I hope, sufficient prospects of success to encourage the production of a companion-volume introducing the composer’s chamber music.