A significant new contemporary Requiem proves to be a contemplative work of profound beauty
The composer Ian Venables is perhaps best known for his songs, and whilst he has written choral music as Requiem represents something of a departure for him. Setting eight movements of the Ordinary of the Mass (there is no ‘Dies Irae’) for choir and organ, the work has grown gradually and the performance last night (2 July 2019) at Holy Trinity Church, Chelsea by the choir Evoke, conductor Victoria Ely, and organist James Gough, was not only the work’s first London performance but the first complete performance (when the work was premiered during a service at Gloucester Cathedral in November last year it was lacking the two final movements, see the review in Seen and Heard). The mass was preceded by a selection of English works by Robert Pearsall, William Byrd, John Joubert, RVW, Frank Bridge, Cecilia McDowall and Herbert Howells.
Venables takes a consoling view of the work, and this setting is very much in the tradition of Faure and Durufle rather than Verdi, and I also thought of Herbert Howells’ Requiem (a work which is linked to his Hymuns Paradisi but being for unaccompanied choir has a very different tone quality to it). The individual movements are short enough to work liturgically, but it is sufficiently substantial to make a significant concert work in its own right. Throughout the piece, Venables’ writing for voices and organ seemed to evoke both Howells and Durufle, the latter particularly in the way the organ amplified, commented and discussed rather than accompanied and the way all the melodic ideas suggested that they might have evolved from chant.
Venables brought a song composer’s sensibility to his approach to the texts of each movement, so that he set the words and followed their emotional narrative, rather than giving each movement a particular colour arising from its Liturgical function. This meant that there were some lovely passages of word painting, and in larger scale movements like the ‘Offertorium’ and ‘Libera me’, the music followed the dramatic narrative of the words.
The ‘Introit’ opened with an organ introduction followed by an unaccompanied choral melody which seemed clearly chant-inspired. As the textures developed, the great beauty of Venables writing became apparent, and the contemplative nature of the work. This was someone who had listened to and loved the Durufle and Howells requiems. The contrasting ‘Kyrie’ developed from an eerie, otherworldly melody for the soprano. Venables was very definite as to there not being a ‘Dies Irae’, so we moved on to the joyful opening of the ‘Offertorium’, the start of a remarkable sequence of music which painted the complex emotional narrative of the text, and I was particularly struck by the slow march which Venables used towards the end of the movement. The ‘Pie Jesu’ was a strikingly simple, almost austere moment for solo soprano and unaccompanied choir, with strong clear outlines to the music. For the ‘Sanctus’ Venables gave us a rather haunting, undulating melody in the soprano and altos with organ accompaniment which climax with the joyful tutti ‘Hosanna’. In the ‘Agnus Dei’, Venables built a strikingly complex structure from a simple chant-like idea, rather beautiful indeed. The strong opening of the ‘Libera me’ broke the mood of the previous movement, this was a highly dramatic movement with intense, strident climaxes yet also chant-inspired moments of pause over long pedal notes. When the ‘Dies Irae’ returned, Venables gave us another slow march. The final ‘Lux Aeterna’ made a numinous close to the work.
Evoke and Victoria Ely gave a fine, confident performance of the work with no sense that this was the first time they had performed it. James Gough was highly sympathetic in the important organ part, and I would love to hear the piece performed with a very French-style instrument rather than a classic English one, fine though the Holy Trinity instrument is.
The movements of the work flowed together quite swiftly which I thought was a mistake. Despite its moments of drama this is a beautifully contemplative work with finely wrought textures and I felt that they needed space to breath. In fact, I thought that rather than preceding it with a selection of motets, the choir should perhaps have simply interspersed the movements of Venables’ Requiemwith some plainchant.
For the opening sequence of music, we heard Robert Pearsall’s Lay a Garland, William Byrd’s Vigilate, John Joubert’s Libera Plebem, RVW’s Rest, Frank Bridge’s ;Andante Moderato’ from Three Pieces for Organ, Cecilia McDowall’s O Oriens and Herbert Howells’ Take him, Earth, for Cherishing. Not all of them were perhaps suitable for the rather big acoustic at Holy Trinity though Ely and the choir (numbering 23 young singers) worked hard at bringing out the detail. It was a mistake, I think, to have the singers strung out on a single arc as this inhibited their ability to create an ideal blend and tuning suffered. Joubert’s Libera Plebem from his three motets Pro pace was a striking new discovery for me and I look forward to hearing it again soon. For Cecilia McDowall’s magical O Oriens (a work which I have sung), the conducting was taken over by Oliver El-Holiby who drew lovely clear sound from the choir and created a sense of time suspended.