Premiere of Ian Venables’ Canzonetta Op.44, by Roderic Dunnett

by Roderic Dunnett

Music and Vision

Birmingham, with its Symphony Hall and Town Hall, may be a prime outlet for musical events. But what is less well known is that south of the city are a cluster of chamber music and concert clubs that regularly entice major performers, young and more established, to their doors; and which, even more to the point, are prepared to commission and put on new works.

At Cheltenham there is the Pittville Pump Room series, which saw violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen perform with pianist Huw Watkins on Wednesday 16 April 2014 (the Cataleya Quartet also performs Rossini, Zemlinsky and Poulenc at lunchtime (1.05pm) at the nearby Town Hall on 22 April); and on the edge of the Malvern Hills, the Malvern Concert Club, which on Thursday 1 May will see the Aronowitz Enesemble, including former BBC Young Musician winner Guy Johnston as one of its two cellists, play the Schubert and Bruckner String Quintets at the Malvern Theatres.

Closer to Birmingham are the impressively active Bromsgrove Concerts and Droitwich Concert Club. The latter have already announced (following an appearance by the flute and harp Antara Duo in C P E Bach, Debussy, Bax and William Alwyn on Friday 4 July) their 2014-15 season, which will be launched by the Maggini Quartet on Saturday 25 October 2014 with Haydn, Mendelssohn and the String Quartet No 2 by E J (Ernest ‘Jack’) Moeran. While Bromsgrove Music will round off 2013-4 with an appearance by the astonishingly gifted Dante Quartet (led by Krysia Osostowicz, with Oscar Perks, the remarkable Yoko Inoue and the eloquently engaging Richard Jenkinson) in a programme of Haydn, Ravel and Turina (La Oracion del Torero — The Bullfighter’s Prayer).

Richard Jenkinson is one of the phenomenally active promoters of the music of Ian Venables. It seemed especially appropriate that these last two music societies should team up to elicit a major new commission from Venables, who lives in Worcester, more or less equidistant from Droitwich and Bromsgrove, and is thus despite a national reputation very much their ‘local’ composer.

Given first at Artrix, Bromsgrove’s relatively new arts complex, and the next night at Droitwich Methodist Church, by the Cavaleri Quartet with clarinettist Timothy Orpen, the new work epitomised the attention given in Bromsgrove’s current and previous series to 20th and 21st century works — quartets by John Pickard (his fifth) and Robert Simpson (No 11) were featured in earlier concerts.

One of the big tests of Venables’ Canzonetta for String Quartet and Clarinet, Op 44, was whether it would stand up alongside the two major works enfolding it: Janáček’s String Quartet No 2 ‘Intimate Letters’, and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. That it did so was not so much surprising as deeply gratifying.

This series has had its share of Czech music: Smetana’s Quartet ‘From my Life’ and his great G minor piano trio, grieving — as Dvořák would a decade or more later — over the loss of his children; the latter paired with Suk’s C minor piano trio. The Janáček, with its somewhat grieving autobiographical content (violinist Milan Škampa opined that the Lullaby section was a memorial to the child he and the young beloved of his later life, Kamila Stösslová, never had), instantly revealed the extraordinarily immediate and vital acoustic of the bare, black-coated Artrix venue. The pianissimo buzzings of the opening, the out-of-doors walking feel, the striking offsetting and pairing of the two violins, the subtle and elegant viola link, the feel of ringing bells at the close, rendered the opening Andante-Allegro electrifying.

What follows brings echoes of the earlier Sinfonietta, the feel of a birdlike chorus, all reaching an extraordinary moment of stasis under the second violin’s proclamatory (or valedictory?) descents, passed to the viola and back to its originator, just as the start began with the second violin attentively echoing the leader. The lullaby is interspersed by sections of furious appassionato, and it was the rapid shifts between contrasting moods of this kind, brilliantly controlled and uncompromising, that made the Cavaleri’s reading seem so astute, and so gripping.

Janáček’s robust finale sets off with a hubbub of discussion between all four instruments, before the leader and cellist launch into a dance that looks as if it may be the last word. But no, the conflicts and contrast resurface: pizzicato descents in second violin; a sad appealing long line from violin 1; leader and second conjuring up virtually a Viennese waltz; a strange slow sequence like a calm and unruffled sea; a staggering Bartókian assault paving way for a second violin quasi-cadenza; and a wild Walpurgisnacht to end with. All in this vivid acoustic that allows nothing to get missed, and amplifies to an almost deafening assault: all very apt for this compacted, expressive masterpiece.

Expressive without doubt describes Ian Venables’ writing, both in his many songs and in this alluring new work, which takes as one of its starting points his Tennyson setting (Op 33 No 5) ‘Break, break, break’. That the allusion has a certain poignancy and intensity is suggested by those actual words, ‘Oh for the touch of a vanished hand and for the sound of a voice that is still’. The word Canzonetta owes something, too, to Samuel Barber, a composer constantly in Venables’ thoughts, who himself composed a Canzonetta for oboe and strings, Op 48, a somewhat elegiac, rueful work written in 1978. Possessed of a pastoral melancholy, the term alludes to a brief lyrical song of Italian origin, and thus sits well with Venables’ mainly vocal output.

This was a tip-top performance of a work whose compactness, cogency and demeanour all suggest it deserves a place in the repertoire. After a vivid cantilena by Timothy Orpen on the clarinet, the top three strings engage in a shy, sad weeping, before an appealing melody in the lead violin (here Ensemble 360’s Benjamin Nabarro, a quite superb performer, acting as guest leader, taking the place of the Cavaleri’s Anna Harpham) emerges supported by rocking lower strings.

The cello imitates, then seems almost to invert the clarinet’s music, before — and here there are parallels with the Janáček’s shifting moods — an ‘impassioned climax’ is reached, a forceful tutti that dies away in the instruments one by one, descending by stages. There is some beautifully worked counterpoint, cello offset by second violin, and so on: Venables constantly looks for different textures, by means of subtle variations in the instrumentation. There are echoes of his song cycles, perhaps most obviously the Addington Symonds cycle Love’s Voice, which also uses a clarinet. But the feeling, to me, compact and intense, recalls (though coincidentally) the superb Reger Clarinet Quintet, or possibly even the Brahms, heard in Droitwich the next day.

There is more keenly worked, attractive counterpointing, and also rich chordings, which in their own way generate more instrumental dialectic and dialogue. One is struck by the way Venables takes a warm, recognisable idea or melody and varies it in numerous ways, often by different uses of the lower instruments, here adroitly played, each with a quite distinctive character, by viola player Ann Beilby and cellist Rowena Calvert. Notable was the feel of long, sustained flow in all the instruments — as opposed to the skedaddling ostinati, mostly descending, which the clarinet fixatedly generates: these fast-moving passages are passed to the middle strings, while the clarinet and matching cello play slower supporting lines. What is particularly striking is that this range and variety, changes of mood (again compare Janáček) and different balancings of members of the quintet is all achieved within a relatively short time. Nine minutes in, a second climax has the players locking horns — or perhaps more benign than that: the effect is almost like carolling together — before the short but rewarding work reaches its end.

Copyright © 20 April 2014 Roderic Dunnett,