Complete Solo Piano Music Naxos, by Roderic Dunnett

Complete Works for Solo Piano: Sonata Op. 1: In Memoriam D.S.C.H.*
The Stourhead Follies, Impromptu: ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’*
Portrait of Janis*, Caprice* (* World premiere recordings)
Graham J. Lloyd (Piano) Naxos 8.573156.

Review by Roderic Dunnett for MusicWeb International, June 2013

Naxos’s adoption of Ian Venables as one of their composers provides the clearest evidence of this composer’s burgeoning, well-earned reputation. The first appearance of Venables’ music on the label, with tenor Andrew Kennedy and accompanist Iain Burnside (Naxos 8.572514) included the astonishing Venetian Songs, which class as one of the most exciting cycles by any living British composer. No surprise, then, that Venables was also the first composer still alive to be included (alongside John Ireland, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Warlock, Quilter and others) on Naxos’s superb English Song Series. Now, after Burnside’s refinement and eloquent advocacy, a pianist of like calibre, Graham J. Lloyd, has tackled the piano solo items of Venables’ engaging chamber output (which includes a riveting, Bartók-inspired String Quartet, recorded with eight songs by Kennedy and the Dante Quartet on a companion Signum disc, SIGCD204).

One finds on this piano disc a composer mostly younger but every bit as accomplished as on the songs discs: several works here, most notably an Angst-ridden three-movement tribute to Shostakovich, Sonata: ‘In Memoriam DSCH’ – actually Venables’ opus 1 – were written in Venables’ early twenties, at the very outset of his career, and if momentarily overstretched despite a superb and sympathetic performance, reveal a precocious gift for affectionate pastiche which surely underlines something about Venables the (young) man.

What makes this whole richly endowed, 13-track disc so uplifting – apart from the wonderfully chosen cover, an extraordinarily coloured, fabulously observed, Turneresque painting by Richard Corbett (b.1969) – is first, that Venables invariably writes in an immensely approachable and enjoyable vein, and even more important, that Graham Lloyd’s playing, forceful and assertive where needed, is quite ravishing.
Here is a pianist whose left hand sings, who brings out melody where others might miss it, who can capture the hidden layers in the music and make buried detail manifest. Just listen to the sylph-like patterns of ‘Stourhead Follies’, composed after a 1984 visit to those evocative gardens near Mere, Wiltshire, where in the music you almost see the Roman-inspired fountains bubbling up; the passionate ending to ‘Folk Tune’ (the last of Three Short Pieces, Op.5); or the delicate, Ravelian melody that eddies tentatively from mysterious, hidden depths at the start of Venables’ opus 8 Impromptu ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. Venables’ love of the Classical (‘Temple to Apollo’, ‘Pantheon’ – or compare his setting of the Emperor Hadrian (‘Epitaph’), from his cycle ‘On The Wings of Love’, on the Naxos song disc mentioned) also calls to mind Szymanowski – not an influence, but likewise a composer who made complex mythical figures focal to his piano and chamber output.
Lloyd’s playing is beautifully articulate and alluring. You can find a like eloquence in his recorded accompaniments, a few seasons ago, to members of the Coull Quartet in Venables’ both early and later solo works for violin, viola and cello, recorded with a mesmerising Piano Quintet on the Somm label (SOMMCD 0101)

The composer could not ask for a more empathetic interpreter; indeed, it is satisfying to find on Naxos, virtually out of the blue, such a warm, deeply questing, fresh-sounding piano interpreter, whose playing – perhaps in Russian or American music – one would gladly hear more of.

The opening ‘Caprice’ (2001, so a much later work) typifies the kind of scintillating scherzo Venables periodically pulls out of a hat in his solo songs (‘Flying Crooked’, on the Signum disc mentioned above, is surely a masterly example), though this outwardly jaunty Caprice also embraces a musing central section: a kind of lulling Promenade, conjuring an Impressionistic ambience touched on quite a lot in Venables’ early keyboard pieces

The Wyastone Leys acoustic, one of Britain’s best recording studios, works wonders. Any enthusiast for British music, or indeed for any modern or romantic piano repertoire, would get huge pleasure from adding this disc to their collection.

The excellent sleeve notes are by Ian Flint.

Further Information, worklists and details of Venables’ music can be found at