Review for the British Music Society
Ian Venables is now recognised as one of the leading song composers of his generation. He continues the tradition established by Gerald Finzi for exquisitely poised settings of poetry which is chosen with great discrimination. The melodic lines always faithfully contour the poetic rhythm, and there is a Finzi-esque ability to conjour up a telling musical phrase to fit the sentiment. His piano writing also is highly resourceful, imaginative, and occasionally very dramatic, as though infused by the spirit of an English Rachmaninoff. It further proves that, given sufficient skill, there is still much to say in a late tonal idiom which, as well as its debt to Finzi, seems to derive succour from the music of late Holst and Howells.
This is, make no mistake, a superb disc – the third to feature Venables’ song repertoire. Cliché alert: it is difficult to imagine this music better sung or played and recorded. As the very full programme notes mention there is much that is slow and contemplative here, so firstly, I would suggest listening in small doses. Secondly, to appreciate the full richness of this offering, I recommend reading the poems – and the admirable commentary in the notes – very carefully before and after listening to the music.
The disc opens with six intense love songs for soprano and piano, the verse, as often with Venables, carefully chosen to explore the mysteries of love and loss. This selection is followed a major work, ‘Remember This’, a cantata for both soprano and tenor with accompaniment from the string quartet and piano. This is a quite remarkable setting of a longish poem by the former laureate Andrew Motion, celebrating and reflecting on the life of the Queen Mother following her death in 2002. It comprises eight sections, four of which are sonnets which are interleaved with a narrative that recounts the Queen Mother’s journey from death to burial. The poetry is direct and approachable, and Venables is quoted as saying it chose him ‘rather than the other way round’.
The final selection on the disc is for tenor, viola and piano and sets lines written by WW 1 poets. The bosky tone of the viola certainly adds colour to the gloomy sentiments. Sassoon’s ‘Suicide in the trenches’ is treated to a setting of savage sarcasm, which is in contrast to the general elegiac mood of this group.
GEOFFREY ATKINSON – BMS