Review of Requiem CD by Brian Wilson

Review of Requiem on SOMM Records

 Musicweb International 

By Brian Wilson

In the expectation of the kind of contemporary choral music which maintains a sense of continuity with the past, yet with a style of its own, I signalled an interest in this recording when it was announced. Here it is, and, yes, it lives up to my expectations. As I wrote in reviewing Ian Venables’ The Song of the Severn (Signum), his music stands in a clear line of descent from Vaughan Williams, especially On Wenlock Edge, and Ivor Gurney (Ludlow and Teme) and, through and beyond them, with the music of the past. Acknowledging the line of descent from VW, Ian Venables also mentions Finzi and Tippett. I hear more of the first two, slightly less of Tippett. That’s a clear recommendation for me for that earlier recording. Better still, the Requiem on the new recording is enshrined in a programme of music by composers who, with one exception, have a personal connection to Ian Venables. That one exception is John Sanders’ Dedication, and there the link is with Gloucester Cathedral, where the composer was Adrian Partington’s predecessor as organist and Master of the Choristers. The Joubert connection is that Venables studied with him for a time and the influence of Gurney’s poetry and music is interwoven through all his music that I have reviewed before.

How does a modern composer write a Requiem, with all the centuries of tradition behind it? The prerequisite would ideally seem to be a work which is both new and aware of the influences of the past. I’m reluctant to name an influence on the Venables Requiem, but I must mention the Fauré and Duruflé. Both those works omit the less endearing sections of Dies Iræ and Venables includes only the Libera me, though not, surprisingly, In Paradisum. Like the Fauré and Duruflé, this is a gentle, not a fiery Requiem, though it’s not without its moments of drama. While I’m drawing the analogy, though in no way implying that any aspect of the work is derivative, I found the closing Lux æterna, with its closing repetition of perpetua, [light] eternal, as hauntingly beautiful as either of those works – and that’s high praise, because I love both deeply. As Duruflé found to his cost, if you write a work in the same spirit as that of another composer, the danger is that yours will sound less distinctive, and, for all that I love both works, they do sound very similar. The Venables is different enough to avoid that temptation.

I usually end a review of music that I have been hearing for the first time by saying that I expect – or don’t expect, sometimes – to grow on me. On this occasion there will be no need for the music to bed into my unconscious; it finds a ready response there, somewhere alongside the poetry of Wordsworth, Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, Finzi’s Dies natalis and the poetic prose of Traherne which inspired it. (If you didn’t realise that I was Jungian, you do now.)

What is difficult is to describe the music; for that, you really need to listen to it, and most online suppliers allow short samples of each section. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can stream it there. Alternatively, you could read Venables own words about this recording, an interview available on the Presto website. He explains there, for example, why he chose to omit the Dies iræ sequence. Venables reports that he found the Libera me the most difficult section of the work to compose, and almost abandoned it until he realised that the heart of the Requiem Mass is as much the prayer for the soul of the living individual as supplication for the departed. (My paraphrase.) At the Reformation, this aspect of the funeral service became uppermost, with prayers redirected for the living. In the event, the music in this section is at its most varied and most passionate, with the words Dies illa, dies iræ chanted in the background like organ pedal notes underpinning the music.

The four shorter works which round off the recording do so in fine style. The final piece, Venables’ O Sing Aloud to God, leads me to hope that he will have more choral writing up his sleeve on a par with his solo vocal works which have already made such a fine impression. I’m pleased to see that he promises as much in that interview. For once, I didn’t even feel that the shorter pieces should have been placed first; indeed, they add extra weight to my recommendation of this first-rate recording.

There’s no rule that says that music can only, or even best, be performed by the choir which inspired it, but this Requiem grew out of a setting of the Introit Requiem Æternam, performed at Gloucester Cathedral on All Souls Day 2017, where the whole work was premiered a year later. Appropriately, the recording was made another year later, in November 2019. If there ever is another recording, it will have to be very good indeed to compete with this. I haven’t heard the earlier Somm recording containing Venables’ Requiem Æternam, which was included on an album of music for remembrance (SOMMCD0187), but it’s another mark of the dedication of this label, along with Signum and Hyperion, to the cause of fine new music. Our editor, John Quinn – review – was impressed by hearing the Requiem to the extent that he is named in the booklet as one of the patrons of the new Somm recording.

I hope that I have whetted enough appetites for this recording to sell well to all who love the British choral tradition. It certainly deserves to do so. Does it meet the criteria that I set out at the beginning? Very much so. The cathedral tradition is alive and well. Don’t hesitate.

If you are looking for a recording of the Duruflé Requiem – and another sign of the health of the English choral tradition – I’ve been listening to a nicely understated account from University College, Durham, Choir, directed by Will Sims (Priory PRCD1232, with Parry Songs of Farewell and Stanford The Blue Bird). I’m far from averse to an English choir in Duruflé, for example King’s, Cambridge (KGS0016, with Quatre Motets and Mass Cum jubilo – review – review – Late Autumn 2016) or St John’s (Double Decca 4364862, with Fauré Requiem, etc.) or the Corydon Singers (Hyperion CDA67070, with Fauré Requiem), but my first choice remains the composer himself, at budget price (Warner Apex 2564611392, coupled like the King’s). And, for the Parry, there’s a superb new Hyperion from Westminster Abbey and James O’Donnell (CDA68301, with Stanford, Gray and Wood – review – review). You really need the new Hyperion and the Venables – apologies to your bank overdraft department.

Brian Wilson