The Chamber Music of Ian Venables, SOMM CD, by Peter Palmer

Tempo Vol. 65 No. 256 April 2011, pp. 85-86
Review by Peter Palmer

Piano Quintet op. 27¹; 3 Pieces for Violin and Piano op. 11; ‘Elegy’ for Cello and Piano op. 2; ‘Soliloquy’ for Viola and Piano op. 26; ‘Poem’ for Cello and Piano op. 29. ¹Mark Bebbington (pno), Graham J Lloyd (pno), ¹Coull Quartet. Somm Céleste SOMMCD 0101.

Born in 1955, Ian Venables studied composition with Richard Arnell in London and with John Joubert and Andrew Downes in Birmingham. His Piano Quintet of 1995 was premiered at the Malvern Festival and performed again at the 1998 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival to wide acclaim. Every bar seems to breathe the spirit of Venables’s adopted region: the Malvern Hills, the ‘coloured counties’ of Herbert Howells’s In Gloucestershire and of Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme. In letting his instincts guide him – ‘There it is on the paper. It wasn’t there five minutes ago!’ – Venables summons up a freshness to divert potential charges of epigonism.

Romantic in harmony and texture, the Quintet was conceived at the outset as a string quartet. It begins with an arrestingly beautiful adagio for strings, the prelude to a substantial first movement with a dance-like close. Although dominated by the viola’s initial lament, the central movement contains episodes of mercurial vigour for keyboard and strings alike. The drama of the allegro finale, featuring a minor-key fugato section, presses towards a sunny denouement, but a slow dissolve carries memories of the work’s earlier shadows.

The atmosphere of the Quintet is anticipated in the pastorale which opens Three Pieces for Violin and Piano. In contrast, the Soliloquy – a Three Choirs Festival commission, since revised – and the Poem recorded here plumb the emotional depths underlying some of Venables’s finest songs. This music is intensely sombre, even anguished. Partnered by Venables’s long-standing advocate Graham Lloyd at the piano, Gustav Clarkson (viola) and Nicholas Roberts (cello) bring passion and sensitivity to their respective pieces, as do Mark Bebbington and the Coull Quartet.