Review of Requiem CD
For Musicweb International by Marc Rochester
Ian Venables’ Requiem emerged gradually over the course of several years. Its first manifestation was as a setting of the Introit from the Latin Requiem Mass sung at a memorial service in Birmingham in September 2017. In November 2018 that setting of the Introit, along with the Kyrie, Offertorium, Pie Jesu, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, was performed liturgically in Gloucester Cathedral. Two further movements – Libera me and Lux aeterna – were completed the following year, and the finished work was first performed in its entirety at Holy Trinity, Chelsea, on 2nd July 2019. At the heart of this work, however, is Gloucester Cathedral, and as John Quinn’s enthusiastic and extensive booklet notes make plain, Gloucester’s Director of Music, Adrian Partington, played a pivotal role in the work reaching its final version. So it is appropriate that the choir of Gloucester Cathedral under Partington’s direction, have made this first recording of the finished work.
There is, however, another strong Gloucester connection which informs this Requiem, and that is Herbert Howells’ Requiem (which is now thought to have been written in 1933 and intended for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge). Both works, despite setting largely different texts (Howells avoided the principal movements of the Latin Mass), are deeply connected musically and emotionally, the influence of Howells evident especially in the Lux aeterna. Also much in the manner of Howells, Venables does not so much bring in moments of high drama as give into outbursts of what seem like momentary flashes of anger. The overriding impression is of a profoundly heartfelt work which contemplates more the grief of death than the anticipation of eternal peace.
That sense of contemplation is evident from the very opening of the Introit, as the voices emerge in succession to create a strangely sparse and at times austere musical landscape. The writing for the voices is reserved but highly effective, and the gentle, sparing support from the organ, adds immeasurably to this haunting atmosphere. The Kyrie grows out of the closing bars of the Introit, the Gloucester trebles producing a truly lovely tone over the length of the extended opening phrase, and the whole resolving on a chord of the deepest tranquillity, firmly in the Howells mould. The Offertorium opens unaccompanied with stark, bare harmonies and a sense of yearning which is only increased when the organ adds its weight to the choral tone, underpinning the bitter climax for the “Hostias”. The Pie Jesu is unaccompanied throughout and is built on a simple, deeply moving melody first presented by a solo treble voice (sung by a pure-voiced Arthur Johnson) before the choir takes this up and lets it soar heavenward. The Sanctus has a luminous quality as it builds slowly up to a massive (and distinctly Howellsian) “Hosanna”. A point of interest is the return to the Sanctus after the first “Hosanna” – Venables does not set the words of the Benedictus qui venit. A prayerful Agnus Dei follows, in which the richness of the Gloucester Cathedral choir is most effectively revealed – Partington achieves a splendid balance here from the supporting voices as his trebles soar into the cathedral’s wonderfully warm acoustic. Venables has written how he found the Libera me to be the composition’s “biggest creative challenge” and, perhaps as a result, it is, at over 8 minutes, the longest individual movement in the Requiem. The problem seemed to be Venables’ reluctance to set the words “Dies irae”, yet the music here is highly dramatic with the ominous tread of the march which underpins the words “Dies illa, dies irae” one of the most powerful and stirring moments of the entire work. The Lux aeterna forms a fitting conclusion to this most heartfelt of requiem settings.
Complementing the Requiem are four choral works with a strong connection with Gloucester Cathedral. John Sanders was Organist and Master of the Choristers at the cathedral between 1967 and 1994 and wrote some fine pieces for his choir (I wish someone would get round to recording his marvellous setting of Psalm 150). Dedication was one of his last pieces, written shortly before his death, intended for a wedding service it moves from a gentle opening to a soaring climax, perfectly designed for the cathedral’s particular acoustic. John Joubert was Composer-in-Residence for the Three Choirs Festival centred on Gloucester in 2010. O Eternal God was written for the cathedral choir in 2017. It is an unaccompanied piece which places considerable demands especially on the trebles, who respond here with some powerfully soaring singing. Ivor Gurney had been a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral in the 1900s yet wrote just two cathedral anthems, neither of which was published in his lifetime. God Mastering Me was composed in the early 1920s and resurrected by Ian Venables in 2015. While Gurney-ists would never recognise the style (it is, to be kind, rambling and lumpy) Partington and the Gloucester choristers present a compelling case for it in this deeply affectionate performance. In a programme which is otherwise notably sombre, Venables’ own anthem, O Sing Aloud to God, with its Rutteresque snap and Mathias-like jauntiness (not to mention its central episode in homage to Howells) provides a pleasingly extrovert conclusion.
Throughout the disc Adrian Partington draws singing of the very highest order from the Gloucester Cathedral choir, Jonathan Hope is a hugely sensitive and perceptive organist and the recording is exemplary, setting the choir and organ in a very real acoustic ambience. A disc for all lovers of the English cathedral tradition and especially for those who like it enveloped in that unique Gloucester musical atmosphere.