Church Times Review
Roderic Dunnett on a new cantata heard in Cheltenham
‘Remember This’ is a substantial new 30-minute cantata by the Worcestershire-based composer Ian Venables, which had its première at this year’s Cheltenham Festival of Music. The title comes from a reflective long poem in two contrasted metres by Sir Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, which is a moving elegy to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. It looks back over her life and recalls things that gave it pleasure, energy, and meaning.
Making use of a piano and string quartet (the stylishly nuanced Elias Quartet) to nurse along the soprano and tenor soloists, Venables, rightly renowned as a song composer of unique talent, produces a richness of harmonic colours and assured melodic flow which is positively captivating. An apt feeling of nostalgia is encouraged by opening violin harmonics; and contrasting bursts of ebullience (“of what it means to be set free from self, from sense, from history”) yield to recognisable patterns of falling intervals in piano and strings, here a musical leitmotif. The soprano’s evocation of salmon-fishing at Balmoral, rising to an exalted conclusion, is underlined by bubbling swirls and a distinctly Impressionist feel to the piano writing. Shrewd and economical, Venables paints with a subtle brush, and is a master of understatement. Where the poem recalls the lying-in-state, the tenor (Allan Clayton, marvellously sympathetic) reaches high to evoke the “vaulted public space”, which contrasts with the shy, melancholic end (“our own lives turn from dust to dust”); and sings delicately, amid piano arabesques, of life-giving spring, “bursting into bloom”.
The departure of the hearse “as now the coffin glides away through London’s traffic-parted day” (the effect is comically like parody: Eliot, as much as Betjeman) encourages the impassioned soprano (Caroline MacPhie) to reflect on changing generations (“our selves the same yet also changed and questioning, and rearranged”) while the tenor reflects on the royal love of a flutter on the horses — in a lithe scherzo with a whiff of Shostakovich (an acknowledged intermittent influence on Venables), which after a moment of distancing springs back with a sharp, thrillingly executed climax. The soprano’s penultimate section is one of yearning and supplication, musing on the royal burial and weighing events with pained solemnity (“in silence which will never break unless real angels really speak”). In the final section, the two soloists hail the Queen Mother’s role as a steadying hand spanning four generations. Here again, Venables serves up music of aching beauty, sensitivity, and sensuality, suffused with not just private intensity but radiant joy in lines such as “rewinding their span to childhood again and seeing you stand at the edge of their days”.