Review of Requiem CD by John France

Review of Requiem CD by John France 

Musicweb International 

July 2020

For this review, I rely heavily on the excellent liner notes written by John Quinn. Ian Venables originally demurred from composing a full-blown Requiem. However, after agreeing to write a short work suitable for a memorial service, he turned to the Latin Mass of the Dead, and selected the Introit, ‘Requiem aeternam’. This was duly written and performed at a service commemorating the life and death of Doreen Somerville, the mother of the composer’s friends Bryce and his sister Cynthia. After the success of this beautiful piece, Adrian Partington, convinced Venables of the need to ‘complete’ his Requiem. It was premiered by the Gloucester Cathedral Choir during November 2018.

Ian Venables has omitted certain sections from the ‘traditional’ order of the Requiem, including most of the long ‘Dies Irae’ (Days of Wrath), except for the final ‘Pie Jesu’. Neither has he set the ‘In Paradisium’ but concludes the work with the exquisite ‘Lux æterna’ (Eternal Light). The overall impression of this Requiem is one of continuity with many of the great examples from the past, including obvious exemplars such as Fauré and Duruflé. It presents a studied use of modal melodies and harmonies, but not eschewing conventional tonality and occasional excursions into chromaticism. As has been pointed out by Roderic Dunnett, Venables does not fall for the static, added note harmonies of Arvo Pärt and his acolytes. Neither does he utilise the ‘pop’ idiom of Andrew Lloyd Webber. If anything, this work lies in a trajectory of good solid Anglican choral writing including such luminaries as W.H. Harris, Charles Wood and not forgetting Ralph Vaughan Williams. A perfect balance has been struck between contrapuntal and homophonic writing as well as some delightful unison passages. The listener will immediately notice the effective organ accompaniment. This is hardly surprising as Ian Venables is also a wholly accomplished organist.

There are recurring elements in this score that display the composer’s skill at creating a subtly unified work. In this cyclical work, the first movement presents material that occurs throughout the piece. The entire score is largely restrained, making the occasional musical outbursts infinitely more effective. Venables has written (introduction to the published score) that, ‘As a song composer, I have naturally included elements of word-painting to highlight key moments in any text and I felt that the Requiem required the same approach.’

Is this Requiem designed for liturgical use or the concert hall? It has been used during the All Souls Requiem Eucharist at Gloucester Cathedral, with considerable critical acclaim. On the other hand, I believe that if it were orchestrated it would neatly fill the first or second half of a ‘secular’ orchestral/choral concert in one of our large venues.
Finally, although, I ‘get’ the whole concept of ‘Requiems’ as liturgical events, I feel that this work, written in Worcester and premiered in Gloucester, is equally evocative of the River Severn, which flows through both towns. I recall Herbert Howells’s masterpiece, the Missa Sabrinensis, which I believe is a ‘tone-poem’ evoking the mystery of Sabrina’s River as a metaphor for an approach to God or the ‘Ground of Being’. This is delivered through ‘nature mysticism’ and a connection to history, both Christian and Pagan. I think that Venables’s Requiem provides the listener with an equally tangible connection to the numinous. I for one, would be happy to approach Eternity listening to the beautiful ‘Lux æterna’ from Venables’s Requiem whilst spending my last moments on the banks of the Severn near Framilode.

My favourite anthem on this CD is John Sander’s ‘Dedication’ written in 2003 for a wedding celebration. The text is by the American Congregationalist Minister Howard A Walter (1883-1918). This a near perfect fusion of words and music that rises and falls to two restrained climaxes. It is a positive affirmation of a ‘plan for life’, ending with the lines ‘I would look up, and laugh, and love, and live.’ What more can we ask of living? John Sanders was organist and Master of the Choristers at Gloucester Cathedral between 1967 and 1994.

If I am honest, John Joubert’s ‘O Eternal God’, op.183 is my least favourite piece on this remarkable CD. The anthem was composed to celebrate his 90th birthday during March 2017. The text, which is a short prayer, was written by the English cleric Symon Patrick (1626-1707), onetime Bishop of Ely. The anthem seems to me a little unbalanced between the perfect repose of the opening and the anguished cry of the dissonant harmonies and the high-pitched melismatic phrases in the middle and concluding sections. This does not reflect the tenor of the text. Interestingly, Ian Venables studied orchestration with Joubert in the early 1990s.

Ivor Gurney’s ‘God Mastering Me’ is a rare opportunity to hear a choral work from his pen. Best known for his large number of song settings, Gurney wrote precious little for choir. The liner notes mention a Psalm chant and two anthems: ‘Since I believe in God the father almighty’ (1925), and the present work composed between 1921 and 1922. Gurney set the first verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s well-known, but I guess rarely read poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. I have not seen the score for this work, but clearly Gurney eschews counterpoint for a largely chordal setting. The organ part is impressive and important. The anthem was edited for performance by Venables and was premiered in 2015 by the present choir.

Ian Venables ‘O Sing Aloud to God’ (1993) is a rare treasure. In fact, it is the composer’ earliest choral composition. It was commissioned by Cantorus Novi and their musical director David Sorward and was premiered in Cirencester Parish Church on 29 January 1994.The anthem is a setting of a text drawn from three psalms, 77, 81 and 107. The work balances ‘jubilant’ opening and closing sections with a deeply felt mediation. The listener will hear echoes of Howells and Vaughan Williams in this anthem. Strangely, I was unable to tie the text down to the relevant psalms. The liner notes explain that is anthem dedicated to Christopher Palmer (1946-95), who was a musical polymath, best recalled, perhaps, for his Herbert Howells: a centenary celebration published by Thames in 1992, editing The Britten Companion (1984) and his masterly Impressionism in Music (1973).

The liner notes give a great introduction to all these works as well as setting them in context. There are short biographies of the composer, the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, their director Ian Partington and Assistant Director and Cathedral Organist, Jonathan Hope. The texts of all the works are included with an English translation of the Latin Requiem. The centrefold features a black and white photograph of the choir. The recording, made in the Cathedral, is ideal in every sense. Sitting in the ‘music room’, close your eyes and you are in there in the nave. And the performances are always sympathetic, clear sounding and exquisitely poised.

This is a CD to be recommended. I enjoyed the anthems, with one exception. The main event is clearly Ian Venables transcendent Requiem, which surely takes its place with Fauré, Duruflé and Howells. It is truly a work of devotion, both to God and the topographical ambience of the Three Choirs Festival landscape.