Review of Orchestral Requiem by John Quinn

 CD review of  Requiem Op.48 (orchestral version) for Music Web International by John Quinn

I first heard Ian Venables’ setting of the Requiem when it received its premiere in a liturgical context in 2018 (review). At that time the last two movements had not been written but even so it was clear that here was a work of great eloquence and importance. It didn’t fall to me to review the subsequent premiere recording of the completed work by Adrian Partington and the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral but I shared the enthusiasm for both work and performance that was expressed by MusicWeb colleagues (review). That first recording used the original version of the score which involved organ accompaniment. Here now is the first recording of the work in its new orchestration by the composer, an enticing prospect.

Ian Venables’ scoring requires quite modest forces: strings (here 4/4/4/4/1), flute, oboe, clarinet, three trumpets, harp, timpani and organ. The trumpets are used sparingly; particularly, I think I’m right in saying, the second and third trumpets. One thing which I noted with interest is that there are a handful of instances – in the ‘Pie Jesu’ after the solo opening, in ‘Offertorium’ and again in the ‘Agnus Dei’ – where passages which are unaccompanied in the organ version now have instrumental accompaniment. These additions are extremely discreet – I had to listen a couple of times through headphones to be sure – but they are effective. For lesser choirs than the Merton College singers, these additions may also be pragmatic aids towards tuning.

I find it very interesting that music by Herbert Howells has been included in the programme for this CD because the benign influence of Howells seems to me to hover over Ian Venables’ Requiem, especially in the harmonic language. Another influence, I think, is French music and specifically that of Maurice Duruflé; indeed, in my copy of the vocal score I wrote when I first heard the ‘Libera me’ “Duruflé meets Howells”. I should hasten to add, though, that whatever influences there may be, Venables is very much his own man and the Requiem bears his individual stamp. Those who know his music well, and especially his extremely fine songs, will not be surprised to learn that the music shows a great sensitivity to the words. Venables follows the structural models of Duruflé and Fauré in that he eschews a setting of the ‘Dies Irae’ but includes the ‘Pie Jesu’. As we shall see, though, unlike those two French masters his Requiem does not conclude with the ‘In Paradisum’.

The Introit begins in suspenseful tranquillity but there’s tension in the air and this builds incrementally to a passionate outburst at ‘Exaudi’. Benjamin Nicholas and his musicians manage this build-up expertly. The music moves attaccainto the short setting of the Kyrie. Since first I heard the work, I’ve felt that the ‘Offertorium’ is one of the most impressive movements in a very impressive work. The melody to which the opening words are set is extrovert but, to my ears, with a dark tinge. It’s akin to fast-moving plainchant with a modern twist. Soon, however, the mood becomes more desperate (‘Libera animas’) before a passage in which the words ‘Hodie memoriam facimus’ are sung over what Graham Lloyd justly describes in his notes as “an implacable, slow march-like figure in 6/4 [time]”. After a reprise of the opening material there’s a complex and powerful ‘Amen’. This is a varied, dramatic movement which offers a choice example of Venables’ skill in word-painting. Benjamin Nicholas leads a gripping performance.

The ‘Pie Jesu’ offers much-needed contrast. This is a very beautiful, calm setting in which the music is heard three times. First, the melody is sung, unaccompanied, by a solo soprano – here, the lovely pure voice of Aine Smith. Then the choir repeats the melody twice, the harmonies simple the first time round and then much richer. In the original version the whole movement is a cappella; here the choir is softly accompanied. The movement is disarmingly lovely. The Sanctus opens and closes with seraphic, light-suffused music for sopranos and altos, the accompaniment gossamer light. Only in the middle – an ecstatic, richly chromatic ‘Hosanna’ – is the full choir and orchestra involved.

The ‘Agnus Dei’ is a plangent, quite subdued prayer for mercy. Then Venables unleashes the ‘Libera me’, which contains the most dramatic music in the work. The opening is truly arresting. Here. as elsewhere in the score, frequent time changes allow for great flexibility in the musical setting of the words – a device also used, of course, by Duruflé in his Requiem. At ‘Quando cæli movendi sunt’ Venables really starts to rack up the tension – as do the performers. A key moment, I feel, comes when Venables sets the words ‘Dies irae’. The basses begin this, their music, echoed in the accompaniment, is remorseless. The tenors soon join them and one has the impression of an implacable march to the grave. The music’s power is heightened when the altos, soon followed by the sopranos, start to sing a counter-subject. All this leads to an immense climax before the music falls away into subdued resignation. This is a movement of great power; all of this the present performance certainly delivers.

I mentioned earlier that Ian Venables does not conclude his Requiem with ‘In Paradisum’; instead, the last movement is ‘Lux aeterna’. His approach may surprise some people, used as we are to quiet, serene Requiem endings, such as those in the works by Duruflé and Fauré and some more recent composers. But Venables has a clear philosophical plan. In his essay about the work in the vocal score, he writes that the concept of Eternal Light has, for him, “a transcendental resonance – one that connects our inner world with the spiritual world that lies ‘beyond the veil’”. So, the music to which he sets this text is radiant and illuminated. At the end his Requiem doesn’t achieve a hushed ending. Instead, the music gets louder and one has the sense of moving with hope – and, dare one say, confidence – towards the light.

The first time I heard Ian Venables’ Requiem I was moved and greatly impressed by this profoundly expressive composition, even though it wasn’t then quite complete. Since then, I’ve heard it many times and my admiration for it has only deepened. Indeed, though one must always be careful in the use of superlatives, I have come to believe that it is a masterpiece. It is very well written for the voices and, in this orchestration, the original organ part is expertly re-imagined in a highly effective fashion. The orchestral colourings enhance the music in a very satisfying way. The present performance is superb in all respects.

It would be crass of me to express a preference for either the Merton College or Gloucester Cathedral recordings of the Venables Requiem. Indeed, I made a conscious decision not to listen to the Gloucester version – though it is secure in my memory – while appraising this new recording. That’s because each version presents the work in a different and equally valid light. The Gloucester performance inevitably stresses the liturgical origins of the work and there’s no doubt that the sound of an excellent cathedral choir (albeit not wholly male-voice) brings out certain qualities and characteristics in the music, as does the frisson imparted by an organ. On the other hand, Merton offer an SATB choir of young but highly accomplished voices and the different colours that the orchestration brings. Both performances are first class and, to be honest anyone who rates this work as highly as I do will want to have both recordings in their collection.

There are two more works by Ian Venables on the programme. God be merciful was commissioned to mark the election of the commissioner’s partner as an Honorary Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. As Graham Lloyd relates, this commission gave Ian Venables the opportunity to make a creative response to the challengers of the Covid-related restrictions then in force in the UK and elsewhere. He selected some verses from Psalm 67 and fashioned them into a highly expressive anthem. I saw and heard on You Tube an early performance, with organ accompaniment, by the Merton College choir. I was impressed then but its appearance here with an accompaniment of strings and organ is even more welcome. The music moves through various stages, each one responding acutely to a different thought expressed by the psalmist. This is a fine piece. The Rhapsody ‘In memoriam Herbert Howells’ is a much earlier work, which I hadn’t previously heard. When I first played this disc, I sat up in surprise because the opening motif is strongly reminiscent of the instrumental figure which we hear right at the start of the Requiem and which recurs throughout that later work. I think it’s sheer coincidence but one wonders if, when composing his Requiem, that thematic idea sprang unbidden to the composer’s mind. The Rhapsody is a very intense piece and in terms of the harmonic and melodic tone of voice it seems to me to pay a very generous homage to Howells. The music sounds splendid on the recently installed Dobson organ in Merton College Chapel, especially when the volume expands. The engineering captures the organ wonderfully and Benjamin Nicholas seems to me to deliver a performance that is both poetic and authoritative.

It’s very fitting that this disc should be completed by three choral anthems by Herbert Howells, all of which are receiving their first recordings in orchestral dress. The House of the Mind dates from 1954, the same year in which Howells produced his magnificent, richly complex choral/orchestral Missa Sabrinensis. This anthem is not, I think, one of Howells’ more frequently performed short choral works, even in the reduction that the composer made for organ, but it deserves to be widely performed and appreciated. It’s a setting of lines by the English cleric, Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699). Beaumont’s poem is introspective and Howells sets it to music that is both intense and thoughtful, with rich, chromatic harmonies in both the choral lies and the accompaniment. Benjamin Nicholas here performs it using Howells’ original version which is scored for strings and organ. Howells’ orchestration is not only very interesting in its own right but also shows the quality of the other two orchestrations, which are by other hands.

O Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks are two of a set of four anthems which Howells composed while snowbound over the Christmas and New Year period of 1940/41, setting them for SATB choir with organ. Like as the hart, one of his best-loved works, has been newly orchestrated for strings by the American scholar and conductor, Howard Eckdahl. Jonathan Clinch says in his booklet essay that Eckdahl has sought to be ‘as true as possible’ to the original organ part. I’d say that he has successfully done so; nothing in the scoring jars at all but instead we hear Howells’ lovely piece in a refreshing way. The Merton singers perform the music with great sensitivity, in which they’re matched by the members of the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia. Dr Clinch himself is responsible for the other orchestration. He chose O Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and his orchestral scoring, for solo viola, string quartet and string orchestra was directly inspired by Howells’ own Elegy (1917) which is similarly scored. I think this orchestration is very successful and in particular the use of a solo viola is inspired; the instrument’s husky melancholy is a perfect extra timbre within the texture. This is a wonderful anthem and the orchestration adds a new perspective. Both of these orchestrations seem to me to be completely idiomatic and serve Howells’ music very well indeed.

I enjoyed and admired this CD very much indeed. All the music is distinguished and in the case of the Venables Requiem we have, I believe, a masterpiece. The performances are absolutely first rate. The playing of the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia is committed and skilful. The Choir of Merton College has in just a few years become established as one of the very finest collegiate choirs in the UK and they’re on top form here. They’ve made a series of splendid recordings for Delphian, all of which I’ve heard, but I venture to suggest this is their finest achievement to date. Engineer Paul Baxter is by now well accustomed to recording in the lovely acoustics of the Merton College Chapel. Once again, he has produced an excellent recording which nicely combines ambience and clarity. I think it’s worth saying that the sessions took place at a time when the UK was still under restrictions of “social distancing”. With every performer required to maintain a distance from everyone else that must have complicated the matters of both ensemble and engineering but you’d never know. Finally, I should say that Delphian’s documentation is up to their usual very high standards. The booklet includes detailed essays of exceptional quality by Jonathan Clinch (the Howells works) and by Graham J Lloyd (the Venables). Both are experts in their respective fields, and it shows.

We’re approaching the time when MusicWeb reviewers will be invited to nominate their Recordings of the Year for 2022. I am in no doubt that this CD will be on my list; it is outstanding in every respect.

John Quinn

Published October 27, 2022