Quintet for Piano and String Quartet Op. 27

Composed: 1989-96
Duration: 27 minutes
First Performance: June 1996, given by the Duke Quartet at the Malvern Festival
Second Performance: August 1998, The Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester performed by the Chilingirian String Quartet and pianist Nigel Clayton.

Commissioned: Kendall Wadley, Malvern (Chartered Accountants)

    1. Adagio Espressivo – Allegro ma non troppo
    2. Largo Espressivo – Doppio movemente – Tempo 1
    3. Allegro moderato con spirito – Adagio e molto espressivo

Ian Venables’ Piano Quintet was commissioned in 1995 by the Worcestershire firm of chartered accountants, Kendall Wadley and received its first performance – given by The Duke Quartet and pianist Scott Mitchell – at the Malvern Festival in the following year. Its genesis is to be found in the composer’s earlier essay in the string quartet medium. Venables conceived the piece originally for string quartet, but it quickly became apparent that the distinct voice of the piano was required and it is for this reason that the work opens with an unusually long, but highly effective introduction for quartet alone.

The first movement is a clearly articulated sonata structure, with a slow introduction and an extended coda. In a texture rich in polyphonic interest, a short, two bar melodic cell is passed between all four instrument and which is later extended above a repeated rhythmic ostinato in the ‘cello. It is at this point that the piano makes its entry, momentarily assailing the string quartet with its assertive arpeggio figurations. This leads to a diatonic second subject of unaffected simplicity in the purest and serenest of keys, D fat major. A virile third subject based on the ostinato figure ushers in a central section of great expressive intensity in which the composer skilfully interweaves the previous material between the instrumental forces. The third section arrives with slight, but telling variation from its earlier counterpart, ultimately leading to the movement’s coda. Here, the slow introductory material is now metamorphosed into a lively dance with the ever-present ostinato figure propelling it towards its ravishing final bars.

The substance of the second movement grows from a short but expressive lament for solo viola, which is answered plaintively by the piano. This deeply elegiac theme is rooted in an earlier piece for clarinet and piano, which was written after the death of the composer’s mother in 1990. After some variation of this theme, the first of two imposing passages for solo piano is presented. These are separated by a scherzando episode of Finzian lightness, in which a new theme, loosely based on the opening lament, is accompanied by playful pizzicati from ‘cello and viola. It is this theme that now becomes the significant feature of the movement’s continued development, heralding a section of exquisite tenderness, which leads to the movement’s dramatic main climax. As this subsides, a glorious modulation leads us to a restatement of an earlier melody, only this time desolate and fragmented.

The gallop-like finale is predominantly boisterous and good-humoured. A strong and energetic opening idea in unison is followed by a new ostinato figure derived from the first movement, but this time distorted by its quintuple feel. Two melodies of structural significance are now presented. The first, played by ‘cello and violin has an open-air freshness about it, with the second more resolute theme adding dramatic contrast. Both become the driving force behind most of the movement’s subsequent development as they move through various tonalities. The centrepiece is a fugue based on the first of the two important themes, only this time in a minor key. This ultimately leads to the central climax: a restatement of the unison theme now glorious and vibrantly optimistic.

Calm is restored as we move towards the work’s final bars. Here spectres from the previous two movements haunt a fleetingly desolate landscape as we are unexpectedly plunged into the first movement introduction, only this time supported by plangent chords. Tolling C-sharps from the piano punctuate the strings’ final fragmentary interjections before resting on two sonorous, yet ultimately assuaging chords.

Music Sample: Quintet for Piano and String Quartet Op. 27

A programme note.

Ian Venables was born and educated in Liverpool and studied music at Trinity College, also with John Joubert in Birmingham. He now lives in Worcester. He is particularly noted for his outstanding contribution to English art song with over 50 works in this genre. But his chamber work is equally impressive with a number of duos for piano and cello, oboe and viola and a string quartet as well as this piano quintet.

In fact, the quintet started life as an essay in quartet writing, as evidenced by the introduction for string quartet alone, each instrument entering in turn with a sighing phrase, building to a rich texture. A dotted drone like rhythm signals a new approach leading to the entry of the piano with assertive arpeggios and a new warm melody which blossoms lyrically. The energy of the repeated dotted rhythm continues to underlay much of the movement as an ostinato as the earlier material is re-introduced and developed in full-hearted vein. The movement eventually stills with the rhythmic ostinato making a final appearance.

After the full-bodied texture of the opening movement the beginning of the slow movement is sparse. An elegy for the solo viola is answered by the piano and taken up in duos or solo by the other instruments in turn, reflecting the movement’s origin in a piece for clarinet and piano written after the death of the composer’s mother in 1990. A long solo passage for the piano leads to the allegretto, with cello and viola pizzicato accompaniment, although the lighter mood is lyrical rather than playful. The mood of reflection returns and a second solo passage for the piano, now stormier leads to full, though dark climax. The movement calms itself, the textures thinning out once more as solo instruments are left to utter fragments of their opening lament.

Confidently boisterous the third movement opens on a rocking fourth. This interval (and its rhythm) is used in a variety of guises, as an ostinato accompaniment, (echoing the opening movement) or as the basis for further development. It also forms the basis of a fugal section which grows into a joyous re-statement of the opening unison theme. But once again, memories of previous movements re-emerge to remind us of darker shadows as solo instruments duet a final lament, fragmenting into last expression of consolation.

Janet Upward, (Chair of Bromsgrove Concerts)