Review of Naxos CD, by Brian Wilson

Review for MusicWeb International, January 2011

by Brian Wilson

Though some of Ian Venables’ music has already been recorded, I had not encountered his songs before. Love’s Voice was recorded by Kevin Maclean-Mair and Graham Lloyd on the Enigma label, a performance which Rob Barnett clearly enjoyed on a disc which he recommended to lovers of Moeran, Vaughan Williams, Orr or Butterworth  – see review. I’m not sure if that CD is still available – it never was on general release – but the Naxos makes a fine replacement.

Andrew Kennedy is an ideal interpreter of Ian Venables’ music, which he sings as if to the manner born. He has already recorded some of the songs, including The Hippo and At Midnight, on the Signum label (SIGCD204), so there is a small degree of overlap. Kennedy has also recorded Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, coupled with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Ivor Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme on Signum SIGCD112 and other songs, including Flying Crooked and A Kiss, on a CD mainly of Ivor Gurney on Somm SOMM057, so you would have some 14 minutes of overlap if you already owned all those earlier recordings.

I must express my thanks at this point to Mr Siva Soke of Somm recordings for pointing out that his label actually beat both Signum and Naxos to the post in recognising Ian Venables’ talent with a recording of the complete Love’s Voice, Vitæ summa brevis, Flying crooked, At Midnight and The Hippo in 2006. (Nathan Vale and Paul Plummer, SOMMCD063). My oversight is all the more culpable because we reviewed that recording very favourably here on Musicweb International—see reviews by Jonathan Woolf – here – and Colin Scott-Sutherland, who thought ‘the whole quite ravishingly beautiful’—here. The typically enterprising Somm recording overlaps some 27 minutes of the new recording. The coupling, appropriately, is of music by Gurney, Ireland and Finzi.

Kennedy’s Signum recording of Wenlock Edge is particularly fine, offering a very strong challenge to existing recommendations, perhaps even supplanting them. I’ve recommended it in my November 2010 Download Roundup – here. I’d be inclined to go for that recording first, then for the new CD, which opens with the longest work, On the Wings of Love (trs.1-5) a cycle of five songs setting the words of authors as diverse as the Emperor Hadrian (in translation) and W B Yeats. The first song, Ionian Song, is dramatic at times but predominantly wistful and lyrical. It won me over immediately to Venables’ style, for which it sets the tone, and its successor, The Moon Sails out (words by Lorca) did even more to convince me.

By the end of the cycle I was fully persuaded that Venables possesses a major talent, clearly influenced by such predecessors as Finzi and Vaughan Williams – it’s no mere coincidence that Andrew Kennedy’s earlier advocacy of his music was coupled with the recording of On Wenlock Edge and Ivor Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme – but with a voice of his own. That voice may not yet be as fully developed as those of his predecessors whom I have named, but it’s already not far short.

Venables also shares with Vaughan Williams and Gurney the knack of setting melancholy words in a manner which contrives to transcend any tendency to mournfulness. The words of the Emperor Hadrian in Epitaph (track 4) and Yeats in When You Are Old (track 5) are set in such a way as to avoid morbidness, as Vaughan Williams and Gurney do so successfully with the words of Housman in A Shropshire Lad, and as Peter Warlock doesn’t quite manage to do in The Curlew – though it’s a good try. Perhaps the employment of the clarinet in On the Wings of Love helps to achieve this effect – I was about to say of thoughts that lie too deep for tears, which makes me think that Venables would be just the right person to set the poems of Wilfred Owen.

I was also convinced that Andrew Kennedy is the ideal personification of Venables’ voice—I know that I’ve already said that, but it bears repeating—and that he could not have been more ably partnered than by Iain Burnside and, in the opening cycle by Richard Hosford.

The Venetian Songs which follow, four settings of the Victorian poet J A Symonds, something of a Venables speciality (tracks 6 to 9) are equally attractive. Here again Venables achieves the effect of wistful melancholy without mournfulness, even though the clarinet no longer features in the accompaniment. Perhaps the words of Symonds in Love’s Voice (track 9) best sum up the composer’s achievement:

‘Twas better thus toward death to glide,
Soul-full of bliss,
Than with long life unsatisfied
Life’s crown to miss.

The dedication of Love’s Voice to the pianist Ian Partridge reminds us that Venables is not only most adept at writing for the voice, but that the accompaniments to the songs also contain piano writing as carefully thought out as that of almost any composer that comes to mind since Schubert.

Tennyson’s Break, break, break (track 12) receives a dramatic setting that makes me hope that Venables will turn again to other parts of In Memoriam for future inspiration. Hardy, too, would seem to me to offer the prospect of grist for his muse’s mill, a view nurtured by the setting of his poem A Kiss (track 18) and further encouraged by the settings of Edward Dowson’s Vitae Summa Brevis (track 13) where the ‘weeping and laughter’ arise out of the dreamy setting and the misty accompaniment:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while…

The most melancholy poem on the CD, Midnight Lamentation (track 10) receives what is in many respects the most lyrical setting, while Flying Crooked (track 14) is sufficient to dispel the impression that everything here is in a wistful vein, though its mood is decidedly in a minority here. For Venables in rather different vein, you need to turn to the Signum On Wenlock Edge CD. The final settings on the Naxos disc, At Malvern (another Symonds setting, tr.17 – though I’d have placed it last) and A Kiss (tr.18) round off a most enjoyable programme.

Most of the Naxos English Song series to date has consisted of reissues from the defunct Collins Classics label – most welcome, as they are, I’m very pleased to see that this is a new recording. That it was made in the Nimbus studio at Wyastone is almost a guarantee of its quality, and the promise is certainly fulfilled in the finished article.

The notes by Graham J Lloyd, the dedicatee of Midnight Lamentation (track 10) and Vitæ Summa Brevis (track 13), are informative and helpful, and it’s also helpful that we have all the texts except for those of tracks 12 and 14 to 16, which remain in copyright. The notes are especially good at putting into words the manner in which the settings capture the mood of the poems. I would have appreciated a few more dates of composition, however, and a slightly larger font.

I recommend this new CD strongly: all lovers of English song should purchase it at their earliest opportunity. If you can’t wait to order it and decide to download, you can access the non-copyright texts from the link at the head of this review. Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library can obtain the whole booklet there.