Rhapsody ‘In Memoriam Herbert Howells’ Op.25
A review by Andrew Wilson
I was delighted to receive a copy of Rhapsody by Ian Venables to review, as I’m probably one of the few organists who already play the piece. Venables is well known and widely performed as a composer of English song and is unashamedly neo-Romantic in style. The finest of his songs sit very comfortably in the English pastoral tradition exemplified by Finzi and Gurney. However, this is his first (and only, to date) foray into the solo organ repertoire.
The piece dates from 1996 and, as its title suggests, owes much of its harmonic and melodic language to Howells. Although the structure and model is clearly one of Howells’ own rhapsodies for organ, there is an individual voice in the music in the way that ideas are developed, so this is no mere pastiche. There is an organic sense of development in the melodies, which are lyrical in nature. However, they are tinged with some dark and intensely chromatic harmony, while casting an anchor of key and tonality around C major, though this is only truly resolved at the very end of the piece. The work starts very quietly and grows in a well-paced crescendo to its climax around two thirds of the way through (complete with melody on pedal reed) before fading al niente at the end. Venables captures the idiomatic writing and rich textures seen in Howell’s rhapsodies with success.
The work is not too difficult in terms of technique, but it does require the player to understand the space that the piece needs to breath in, and to be able to shape the long lines. It deserves to be heard by a wider audience (there is already a fine recording from Worcester Cathedral by Adrian Lucas) and although this is not the first time the piece has been published, I hope that its presence in the Novello stable will help it achieve wider recognition. If you feel an affinity with the language and idiom of the piece, then do also explore his songs and chamber music; you won’t be disappointed.