Gramophone Signum CD Review

CD Review – ‘Love Live’s Beyond The Tomb’ 

The Gramophone, June 2020 

By Mark Pullinger

I’m ashamed to report that this is my first encounter with the music of Ian Venables and it immediately set me off to search out more. He is a very fine composer of songs, with a real feel for poetry, and can spin sympathetic vocal lines for his singers. This new Signum disc (there are two others) is evenly shared between two singers, the soprano Mary Bevan and the tenor Allan Clayton. Each has a set of songs or a cycle plus a joint work, Remember This, a setting of Andrew Motion’s poem written in memory of the Queen Mother. The six songs sung by Bevan represent something of a departure for Venables. Most of his works are for male voice (Andrew Kennedy and Roderick Williams feature on those other Signum discs), yet his writing for soprano is wonderfully accomplished, texts set as to remain intelligible and also allowing Bevan to float creamy top notes. ‘Love lives beyond the tomb’ is the highlight of this set, a wonderfully nostalgic piece composed for Lady Bliss in celebration of her 100th birthday and reflecting on her love for her husband, the composer Arthur Bliss. Venables’s setting of James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music III’ is also notable, chiming midnight bells evoking the nocturnal scene.Clayton sings Through These Pale Cold Days, a cycle setting war poets from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon. Here Venables adds a viola, which adds a certain plangency to the title-song, Isaac Rosenberg’s remarkable poem about his persecution within the ranks for being a Jew. Col legno strikes add further bitterness to Sassoon’s devastating poem ‘Suicide in the trenches’, where Clayton reaches heroic heights. The closing ‘If you forget’, a setting of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, is beautifully haunting, tenor soaring softly above simple piano chords. Graham J Lloyd’s playing is eloquently tender and he and the composer contribute very detailed booklet notes (some 12 pages!) giving the compositional background and much musical analysis.

Remember This is the most striking work on the disc, a 30-minute setting of Motion’s poem that is itself split into an aria-and-recitative structure which allows Venables to treat it as something of a cantata. It features a framing narrative recounting the Queen Mother’s death and lying-in-state through to her funeral, interleaved with reflections on some of the things special to her, including salmon spawning, trees and her love of horse racing. Venables writes for piano and string quartet here (the excellent Carducci Quartet), allowing for a thickening of textures. Apart from the horse racing episode, though, the songs are predominantly slow in pace, as they are on the rest of the disc, which means that listening to the whole 78 minutes in one go isn’t especially recommended. Much better to programme your listening to give each of the three sections your separate attention.