Ian Venables’ CD of Songs, by Piers Burton-Page

A Review of the Composer’s CD of Songs
by Piers Burton-Page

The opening of this collection is arresting. Repeated pounding, low Cs on the cello support an intensely lyrical, even passionate outburst in the other three strings. The music eventually quietens, viola prominent, for the tenor’s first uncompromising utterance: “In crime and enmity they lie / Who sin and tell us love can die?…”

So one’s first impression is of a composer wholly serious in intent, intimately responsive to the introspective musings of the mad Northamptonshire poet John Clare. His poems are set in a craftsmanlike, tonal mid-century English idiom, in the cycle Invite, to eternity. Another somewhat earlier Venables cycle, Love’s Voice, for tenor and piano this time, is equally intense in its response to the saturated melancholy of John Addington Symonds.

In fact this recital contains all of Ian Venables’ songs to date, offering 16 tracks in all. The booklet note (by the accompanist on this disc) suggests that song-writing is seen by the composer as a relaxation from abstract musical thought – but the evidence here is of a willingness readily to engage with sorrow and loss, or nature in dark mood. The ultra-sensitive version of Edna St Vincent Millay’s At Midnight (from Op. 28) or Ivor Gurney’s Pain add value to their chosen texts by underlining their bleakness and simultaneously offering lyrical consolation in the form of music – though the sheer anger of the Gurney is missing, I think.

The recording is perfectly adequate, warmer in the songs with piano than those with the quartet. The tenor is balanced well forward, enabling the majority of Kevin McLean-Mair’s words to be properly audible without recourse to the booklet. The Emerald String Quartet and the pianist Graham Lloyd are admirably committed in support. The disc is generously filled, offering a welcome chance to explore just one side of a contemplative creative spirit, clearly stimulated both by the human voice and by poems from a wide variety of sources.