Complete Solo Piano Music on Naxos, by John France

Review by John France for MusicWeb International

Caprice, Op. 35 (2001) [8:37]
The Stourhead Follies: Four Romantic Impressions, Op. 4 (1984) [18:52]
Three Short Pieces, Op. 5 (1986) [6:11]
Impromptu: ‘The Nightingale and The Rose’, Op. 8 (1996) [8:23]
Portrait of Janis, Op. 9 (2000) [6:21]
Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H., Op. 1 (1975) [21:44]
Graham J. Lloyd (piano)
rec. 23-24 October 2012, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouthshire.
NAXOS 8.573156 [70:10]

Ian Venables has justly gained a reputation as being one of the most important composers of vocal music of our time. He has contributed an impressive array of songs with piano and chamber accompaniments. Only recently, his latest offering, The Song of the Severn, Op.43 was heard at Malvern. It would be unfair and wrong to suggest that his music-making was restricted to the muse of song. A few years ago SOMM released a major retrospective of his chamber music, including the important Piano Quintet Op. 27. This was received with critical acclaim. In addition there is a fine Rhapsody for organ, a few choral works and some pieces for brass ensemble. Up until the present CD release few people have realised that Venables is also an accomplished writer for the piano. This should have been obvious to any listeners who have approached his songs and chamber works (with piano) and have heard the idiomatic and well-conceived writing for this instrument that is a major part of the success of these works.

I began my consideration of this CD with the Three Short Pieces, Op.5 which date from 1986. If any listener is expecting to find intimations or expansions of Venables’ vocal achievement then this is not the place to look. What he has provided are three impressions ‘for children.’ Now I am not sure that these pieces are necessarily for ‘beginners’: I guess they are possibly about Grade 6. The liner-notes suggest that the ethos of the work is meant to be evocative of childhood – in other words an adult ‘reflecting’ on their younger days. Other examples of this in the literature are Debussy’s Children’s Corner, Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite and many of the piano works by Harry Farjeon and Alec Rowley. I am not too convinced that these pieces have the ‘lightness’ suggested in the notes. I feel that there is a sadness and nostalgia that counterbalances the seeming innocence and playfulness. The ‘Caprice’ is quite a tricky little piece that exploits a rugged rhythmical figure. The form can be defined as a ‘freak, whim, fancy’. The Dance of the Teddy Bears is much less whimsical than the title may suggest. It feels that this is more of a case of ‘teddies’ that have reached the grand old age of their ‘companions’ and are dancing a stately minuet rather than frolics ‘down in the woods today …’ The final number of this set is the serious, reflective and possibly even ‘melancholic’ Folk Tune. This is a big powerful piece that clearly reflects the composer’s respect for Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is built on an arch form with a commanding climax. My only concern is that this group of pieces is a little imbalanced. The emotional disparity between the ‘Caprice’ and the ‘Folk Tune’ is immense. I feel that the latter could (should?) stand alone as a recital piece.

The Portrait of Janis, Op. 9 is a deeply felt and often moving miniature. It was composed in the autumn of 2000 and was first performed by the composer during a visit to California in the same year. The composer has summed up this work “… the piece is a wistful evocation of mood, a backward glance, remembering a perfectly happy moment spent with special friends”. Indeed it is very much about time and place, ‘recollected in tranquillity’, with one such friend placed at its centre: Janis. For most of the Portrait the composer has moved his centre of attention away from the United States to that of the English landscape. The notes do not tell of the ‘happy moment’ was a recent or far off event. Whatever the historical and personal associations, Venables has created a perfectly poised reflection that balances sadness with tranquillity and a retrospective mood that defies analysis.

I find Oscar Wilde’s story of The Nightingale and the Rose too hard to bear: it is certainly not one I would choose to read for entertainment or pleasure. It is not fair to repeat the tale as some readers may not yet have read it. The tale is a well-written allegory of selflessness, sacrifice and love. This story has called forth Ian Venables’ only piece of ‘programme’ music to date. The Nightingale was originally written (and performed) as a children’s ballet for the ballerina Marjorie Chater-Hughes, however it was later ‘extensively’ reworked into an ‘impromptu’. As a piece of ‘theatre’ this music charts the course of the story almost line by line. It is a stunningly beautiful composition that has nothing to do with ‘children.’ I can only listen to this work by blanking the story out of my mind: as such, I can cope with the inherent sadness, heartbreak and tragedy. I do wonder if Ian Venables will one day produce a major ballet score to stand beside John McCabe’s Edward II or Joby Talbot’s Alice.

I listened next to the ‘Caprice’ Op.35, which was commissioned by the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival for their 2001 event. It was premiered by Phillip Dyson. This work is much more powerful and profound than its title would suggest. The opening motive seems to pervade much of this music in an almost minimalistic way: yet, this is no pastiche of Philip Glass or the ramblings of Einaudi. There is plenty of variety and seeming development. The ‘Caprice’ is designed in an arch form with a central section that is withdrawn and possibly even disturbing. The musical material is largely timeless. It is not possible to say that this or that composer has influenced the music; however the central section has a kind of Bach-by-way-of-Finzi feel to it. The opening ‘choppy’ theme is reprised, bringing the work to a satisfying close – but not without one or two references to material from the ‘middle eight’ ‘song without words’.

I have never been to Stourhead in Wiltshire, however, listening to this music (and checking out the website) makes we want to ‘go west’ to see this stunning house and its gardens. The Stourhead Follies, Op.4 was inspired by a visit made by the composer in 1984. The liner notes point out that this left a ‘deep impression’ on the composer and resulted in music that reveals the ‘evocative atmosphere of the gardens.’ The key to this work is in the subtitle – ‘Four Romantic Impressions.’ Nevertheless, this is music that can stand alone without the allusions to the topographical markers. This is not ‘impressionistic’ music as such, but a reflection of the composer’s feelings, moods and, I guess, personal memories of the visit.

The opening number is entitled ‘Temple to Apollo’. It does not require a great knowledge of piano music to divine that Rachmaninov and Ravel (favourites from Venables’ youth) are lurking in the shadows here. The composer does not parody these ‘greats’ but uses their pianism to create an intense and vibrant mood that is quite personal. ‘Palladio’s Bridge’ is almost barcarolle-like with its ‘hypnotically lilting rhythmic figures.’ It is another excellent example of Venables’ ability to make a ‘backward glance o’er a travell’d road.’ This is not written in a smiling pastoral mood as such: there are dark things here that do not feature in a carefree summer’s day in the policies of a big country house. The third ‘impression’ is ‘Pantheon’ which is quite short, but vibrant and largely untroubled in its mood. The liner notes suggest that the insistent rhythms conjur[e] up a mood of Bacchanalian excess and joyful abandon. The harmonies here are drier and colder: the theme is almost nautical, shanty-like in its statement. ‘The Grotto’ makes a fine conclusion to these four impressions. There is a stasis and sadness here that acts as a foil to much that has transpired. It is quite a long number, but the hypnotic nature of the music makes it one of those pieces that grab hold of you and draws you into the mood. It is hauntingly beautiful and, for me, sums up much that Venables has expressed in succeeding years.

The Stourhead Follies may not be typical of British Music of the late twentieth century, it may not be representative of Ian Venables’ musical achievement to date, yet this is an engaging and moving work that can stand alongside many pieces composed by Bridge, Ireland and Bax.

The Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H. Op.1 (1975, rev 1980) is a big work. Written when the composer was only twenty years old, it is much more than a student ‘exercise’ or the extravagant explorations of youth. The work was called forth after the death of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and was subtitled ‘In Memoriam DSCH’. It was given the Op.1 and, not surprisingly, represents the composer’s earliest mature work for pianoforte. I am about the same age as Venables, yet I never latched onto Shostakovich in those years (or since). I was more impressed by Britten and Tippett at that time. However, Venables was immensely inspired by the Russian’s Symphonies, string quartets and the monumental Preludes and Fugues for piano.

The key to this work has been given by the composer: ‘I was trying in this work to create a similar sound world, not to copy it, but to refract it through an Englishman’s imagination.’ To what extent this has been successful must fall to reviewers who are better acquainted with Shostakovich’s music than I am. From the point of view of music-qua-music I believe that this Sonata works extremely well.

The work is written in three movements: the first is effectively in sonata form and makes use of the Russian composer’s characteristic device of D.S.C.H. (D, E flat, C and B natural) as a key element in its formal construction. There is a structural balance between a ‘harrowing intensity’ in some passages and the ultimate serenity of the coda. The middle movement is a short scherzo which is designed to ‘mirror’ Shostakovich’s sense of humour. This is complex music with a huge variety of pianistic devices that presents considerable demand on the pianist. The final section of this Sonata is a long, intense ‘adagio’ which has been described as a ‘threnody.’ This song of mourning is presented in deeply ‘sombre mood’ with few flashes of light piercing the darkness. The music builds up to a climax that sees the virtual abolition of rhythm or key centre.

Ian Venables’ Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H. is an impressive work by any standards: for it to be the first major offering from his pen makes it even more remarkable. The listener will be moved and ultimately satisfied by the working out of this Sonata. Whether it is possible to predicate Venables’ later music from this fine Op.1 is a matter for further listening and exploration. It is a fact that the sombre, reflective and often ‘valedictory’ mood that infuses much of his music to date is already present in these pages.

Ian Flint has provided the excellent liner notes: I have relied heavily on these for this review as virtually all these works are ‘premiere recordings’ and there are no discussion or analysis available elsewhere (except for Venables’ website). I was hugely impressed with Graham J. Lloyd’s performance of all this music. He has a sympathy for, and understanding of, Venables’ aesthetic that discloses itself in virtually every bar of the music.

I would commend this CD to all British music enthusiasts. It is the perfect complement to the increasing number of CDs that showcase Ian Venables’ undoubted mastery of English song and chamber music. Other desiderata must be the three important works for brass ensemble including the Triptych for Brass and Percussion, op.21 and the Three Bridges Suite for Jazz Ensemble Op.18.