Review of At Midnight CD, by John France

Review of At Midnight CD – Songs and Chamber Music on Signum Classics
by John France

Invite, to Eternity, Op.31 (1997) [24:21]
Four Songs with String Quartet (arr. Graham Lloyd)
‘A Kiss’ Op.15; ‘Flying Crooked’, Op.28 No.1; ‘The Hippo’, Op.33 No 6; ‘At Midnight’, Op.28 No.2 (?) [12:15]
String Quartet, Op.32 (1998) [21:01]

Andrew Kennedy(tenor); Dante Quartet, Krysia Osostowicz (violin); Giles Francis (violin); Judith Busbridge (viola); Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)

Signum SIGCD204

Ian Venables’ works are written in the trajectory of mainstream British classical music over the past hundred years. Yet this is not to suggest the he lacks his own voice or that he is in any way writing a pastiche of earlier generations – he is most definitely not. However, the key feature of Venables music is an approachability often denied to more eclectic composers who have ignored or even despised their musical heritage. None of his compositions would repel the listener, although not all are immediately rewarding – some have to be worked at to gain an understanding and to develop an emotional response.

String Quartets have long been an important part of British musical composition. Frank Bridge produced four quartets, John Blackwood McEwen wrote some nineteen examples of this form, with Elizabeth Maconchy not far behind with thirteen. Nevertheless, the core repertoire would appear to be Benjamin Britten’s three mature quartets alongside the five by Michael Tippett. However, I believe that it is largely to the continent that the listener needs to look for the most obvious precursors to this present quartet. In spite of the fact that Venables has eschewed serialism and ‘folk music’ there is much in these pages that nods to Alban Berg and possibly Bela Bartok. The emotional range of Venables work is wide – from naked aggression and despair through humour to serenity and hope. For a model nearer home the stylistic diversity of Frank Bridge’s quartets may be of considerable relevance.

The String Quartet was composed in 1998 as a result of a commission from the Droitwich Concert Club as a part of their 25th Anniversary celebrations. The first performance was given by the Duke String Quartet. The work is dedicated ‘with permission’ to Sir Michael Tippett.

Anyone imagining that Ian Venables’ String Quartet is a kind of English idyll will be largely disappointed: however, someone approaching this work with an open mind will be challenged and ultimately moved. The programme notes suggest that this quartet is at times ‘gritty,’ ‘harsh’ and ‘uncompromising in tone’ yet, this is not the full story, as we shall see. The opening movement has a strong contrast between the ‘granitic ostinato’ and a much more lyrical passage. This is balanced against a song-like melody and a ‘maelstrom’ that forms a major part of this movement’s material. The concluding bars succeed in restoring a degree of sanity to the proceedings. The ‘allegretto scherzando’ comes as a relief after the concerns of the first movement. If I am honest, it is music that could have been written at any time over the past 75 years –and is none the worse for that. The vitality and energy is never in doubt and strikes a fine balance between playfulness and something just that little bit more sinister.The heart of this quartet is undoubtedly the ‘adagio’ sections of the final movement. This is beautiful material that is interrupted by more dynamic events including a central fugue and a deeply lyrical melody that is summation of much that has transpired. The movement and the work close with a splendid coda which finally lifts the largely melancholic, even valedictory mood to one of hope and even optimism.

The song-cycle Invite, to Eternity Op.31 was composed in 1997 and was conceived for tenor and string quartet. Graham Lloyd suggests that this better reflected the kaleidoscopic moods, images and nuances of John Clare’s (1793-1864) poetry. With this song-cycle the listener is back on familiar Venables territory – the balance of melancholy with flashes of optimism and deep insight. This is music that perfectly matches the text.The song-cycle opens with a lengthy prelude for the string quartet (vide Finzi, Dies Natalis) before the singer begins his proceedings Born Upon an Angel’s Breast with a recitative that certainly does have echoes of the elder composer. The message of the poem is the dichotomy between love as ‘sin and death ‘and as the ‘only saviour of the soul.’ The intensity of the cycle is increased with the second song, the eponymous An Invite, to Eternity. However, the opening sentence would appear to be light hearted and flirtatious – ‘Wilt thou go with me sweet maid…?’ Yet this poem is not so much about a summer’s ramble in the countryside as a Bunyan-like ‘progress’ through a landscape where ‘the path has lost its way’ and where’ life will fade like visioned dreams’. Venables pushes the music here into ‘angular’ and often dissonant moods – without ever loosing the inherent lyricism.

Fortunately, the composer chooses to lighten up the proceedings with the ‘scherzo’ – ‘Evening Bells’. This is pure rural idyll – although of the finest quality. Gone is the oppressive mood of the previous songs, to be replaced with lines such as ‘Zephyrs breathing once again/Once again the zephyr swells/ Still I lie upon the plain/ Entranc’d to hear the evening bells…’ It is quicksilver music that is over almost as soon as it is starts. However, it leads the listener’s mind and mood towards the bleak sound world of the poet’s best known poem – the searching ‘I am.’ This was John Clare’s last offering to the literary world and is heartbreaking. Yet, even in these bleak verses there a glimmers of hope and even resignation – for example the poet’s wish for a place ‘where man never trod’ and there to ‘abide with my Creator, God/And sleep as I in childhood, sweetly slept’. It is a synthesis of music and words that will long remain in the listeners mind: it is heart breaking and must bring a tear to even the hardest of hearts (to mix a metaphor).

The first performance of Invite, to Eternity was given in November 1997, at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hall, Worcester with the tenor Kevin McLean Mair and the Bochmann String Quartet. This song cycle is surely one of the ‘great’ essays in this form. The use of the string quartet instead of the piano was, in my opinion, a touch of genius. But, be warned, this is depressing stuff: I am off for a cup of tea and a seat in the summer sunshine in my garden to watch the dunnocks and nuthatch and to generally cheer up!

Graham Lloyd arranged four of Ian Venables songs for tenor and string quartet – the work is simply called ‘Four Songs for String Quartet’ and appears to be regarded as a cycle to be played in order rather than a group of individual songs to be chosen at random. They were originally written over a period of years and are culled from a number of song-cycles where the accompaniment was the piano. Lloyd feels that the use of the string quartet enhances the mood of the songs, although the originals are also perfectly balanced. The first song is the beautiful ‘A Kiss’ from Thomas Hardy’s final volume of poetry – ‘Moments of Vision.’ The idea of the song is a balance between ‘an innocent love’ with ‘love as an eternal theme.’ The music succeeds in presenting an almost time-stopping mood that echoes the reflective nature of the poem. The music contrasts the diatonic melody and a more chromatic accompaniment, perhaps reflecting the two sides of love presented in the poem. Interestingly, Ian Venables told me that ‘A Kiss’ is ‘perhaps stylistically the closest I get to Finzi.’ However he does insist that any ‘aural references were not conscious ones.’ Robert Graves’ fine evocation of the ‘haphazard’ flight of the cabbage white butterfly is well stated. It has become the Venables’ most popular song and was composed at the request of the late Lady Bliss. It is a short work that echoes the unpredictability of the butterfly’s progress with ‘pointillistic’ harmonic writing. Theodore Roethke’s charming and wistful poem ‘The Hippo’ is given an appropriate setting that matches the tongue in cheek sentiment of the author. Graham Lloyd notes the pause on the word ‘yawn’ in ‘…he starts to yawn, it takes all day.’ However the music is a little bit more melancholy than the spirit of the poem demands.Finally, Edna St Vincent Millay’s fine poem ‘At Midnight’ is a reflection on her past loves and is a fine example of a sonnet. Perhaps the most moving lines are the last – ‘I cannot say what loves have come and gone/ I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.’ The music complements the almost impressionistic quality of the words and succeeds in providing added value to what is a truly beautiful poem.

The quality of the playing is excellent and fully reflects the deep emotional concerns of much of this music. All the performers are well able to cope with the mood changes –especially to the more humorous moments in these works. Venables has a good champion for his songs with the tenor Andrew Kennedy. The CD liner notes are well written and are immediately helpful to the listener in gaining an understanding of these works.

Ian Venables is a composer who is going from strength to strength. I have noted above (and elsewhere) that his style is largely one of innovation within received tradition: it is this that makes his music approachable and ultimately successful. But the greatest thing of all is that each of these pieces has the capacity to move the listener. No more need be added.

June 2010