Review of Signum CD by John Quinn

Review of ‘Love Lives Beyond The Tomb’ CD by John Quinn

Musicweb International

April 2020

I’ve long admired the songs – and indeed the other music – of Ian Venables and I’ve come to regard him as the pre-eminent heir to Gurney and Finzi as a composer of English song. In saying that, I’m thinking not just of the musical aspect, though his vocal melodies are consistently pleasing and his piano parts engrossing. I also have in mind his discerning eye when it comes to the selection of texts to set. He often lights upon a text which, at first glance, is not an obvious choice for musical setting and which has been overlooked by other composers but unfailingly he enhances and illuminates the words through the music to which he sets them. So, a new CD of songs, including recorded premieres of two important song cycles, is a prospect to set the pulse racing.

The disc opens with six individual songs performed by soprano Mary Bevan partnered by pianist Graham J. Lloyd. Signum don’t make it clear whether these are first recordings but they may well be: I can’t find any rival versions on any of the Venables discs I own. As Graham Lloyd points out in his notes, all of them were conceived for soprano voice and it seems to me that in Mary Bevan they have found their ideal interpreter.

The Way Through sets lines by the contemporary poet Jennifer Andrews. Right from the start, Graham Lloyd distils a very poetic atmosphere in the piano introduction and Mary Bevan picks up on this ambience seamlessly. The song is an essay in recollective melancholy and Bevan sings it most expressively. She offers an exquisite performance of Aurelia, a setting of a Robert Nichols poem. Here. the vocal line is slow and sensuous and I would describe the music as tenderly loving, which complements the sentiments of the poem. For Chamber Music III Venables turned to the poetry of James Joyce. I’m afraid I usually find Joyce’s poetry a very tough nut to crack. These particular words are perhaps easier to understand than some Joyce that I’ve encountered but they still present a challenge. On one level, that of immediate appeal, the song is gorgeous but I’m sure that as yet I’m a long way from fully unlocking it. Graham Lloyd’s pianistic touch is expertly sensitive.

Love lives beyond the tomb, which furnishes the title of the album, was written at the request of Lady Trudy Bliss to celebrate her 100th birthday in 2004. The poem which she herself chose, by John Clare, was her favourite. What Graham Lloyd aptly describes as the “playful piano introduction” means that the listener is somewhat surprised by the start of the slow, sensuous vocal line which coincides with a shift from major to minor. The poem is in six stanzas and for the middle two the playful mood reasserts itself but then there’s a gradual return, beautifully managed, to the mood and music of the opening stanzas. This is a lovely song. The setting of Edward Thomas’s poem It Rains is suffused with intense melancholy. There’s a wonderful melodic flow in this song and the music seems to me to fit the words like a glove. Mary Bevan’s group concludes with I caught the changes of the year which sets a poem by John Drinkwater. This is another slow, expressive song which Mary Bevan and Graham Lloyd deliver most poetically.

All six of these songs are marvellously done. Mary Bevan’s singing is a delight to hear and she responds to the words acutely. The piano parts are full of interest and atmosphere and Graham Lloyd’s playing of them displays consistent sensitivity. If I have a criticism – and it’s an extremely mild one – all the songs are in slow or moderate tempi and I wish Miss Bevan had chosen just one that proceeds at a faster pace. I said I wasn’t entirely sure if the six solo songs had been recorded before. I can say unequivocally that both of the two song cycles are new to disc.

Remember This is remarkable on several levels. For one thing, it employs two voices – soprano and tenor – although the singers are only brought together at the end of the cycle and, briefly, at the outset. Another remarkable feature is the choice of poem. Remember This is a poem written in 2002 by Sir Andrew Motion, who was at that time Poet Laureate, to commemorate the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. It’s a long poem, which Ian Venables has set in its entirety; indeed, it could be argued that the eight sections of the poem constitute eight poems within a poem. There are four narrative sections of verse, each one of which is followed by a stanza of recollection. Structurally, Venables binds the cycle together though the use of a simple but memorable four-note motif. We hear this played by the instruments at the very start and then it’s used as the melodic material for the two singers to sing, unusually, the title of the poem. Thereafter, the motif recurs, notably at the start of each of the narrative sections – always played by the viola, I think I’m right in saying. To accompany the singers Ian Venables has used a string quartet and piano, forces which he deployed to excellent effect in the masterly cycle The Song of the Severn (review). In this present cycle, too, the use of a piano quintet opens up all sorts of colouristic possibilities. The instrumental parts constantly engage the ear but in so skilful a way that they never distract from the vocal lines.

The narrative sections describe the Queen Mother’s last hours of life, her lying in state, her state funeral and her burial. As you may imagine, these sections inspire intense and elegiac music. I think that Ian Venables rises very successfully to these challenges and so do Mary Bevan and Allan Clayton, both of whom are presented with music that is both technically and emotionally challenging. The recollective stanzas provide much-needed contrast; this is a poem and a cycle that is by no means just a funeral elegy. So, for example, the first of these recollections deals with the Queen Mother’s well-known love of salmon fishing. Andrew Motion’s words are sung by the soprano in long, sustained melodic lines but underneath those lines is an appropriately flowing and liquid accompaniment. Later on, the Queen Mother’s lifelong passion for horse racing is celebrated in the penultimate recollection section. The episode is a swift scherzo-like passage, the only quick music in the work, in which the words are given to the tenor. Earlier, Alan Clayton sings another passage of reflection, ostensibly about trees. Here, Venables’ music is strange, almost otherworldly; the singer has to use head voice a lot and even sings falsetto occasionally. The section that is concerned with horse racing comes as a very necessary contrast because the preceding narrative section (for soprano) describes the Queen Mother’s funeral. Here, the music is initially very slow and solemn but as the setting unfolds the emotional temperature rises in music that is poignant and increasingly intense. After the horse racing interlude Mary Bevan returns to sing the section devoted to the burial; she sings this elegy with great feeling. In the final section we hear both singers, initially singing in warm unison as the words invite the reader/listener to reflect on the Queen Mother’s life with a sense of gratitude. The four-note motif is prominent in the accompaniment as the music rises in affirmation. Then, after the singers have finished, the instrumentalists bring the cantata to a close in a reflective, gentle coda which is founded on that musical motif.

Remember This is a fine work. It’s a perceptive and eloquent response to Andrew Motion’s text. The success of the poem, it seems to me, is that it is commemorative without ever being sentimental or mawkish. Motion’s decision to celebrate aspects of the Queen Mother’s life means that this is far from being a funereal poem. To be sure, there are solemn, intense passages but there are also lighter-toned episodes – those devoted to salmon fishing and horse racing are cases in point – and this gives Ian Venables the opportunity to set the poetry to music of considerable emotional and musical variety. Mary Bevan and Allan Clayton sing very well indeed and they receive empathetic support from Graham Lloyd and the Carducci Quartet.

One member of the Carducci Quartet, violist Eoin Schmidt-Martin is involved in the final piece on the programme. The song cycle Through These Pale Cold Days is for tenor, viola and piano. This set of five songs was Ian Venables’ contribution to the centenary commemoration of World War I and I attended the premiere in Worcester in June 2016 (review). I’ve deliberately refrained from re-reading my review of the first performance because I haven’t heard the songs since and I wanted to approach them fresh and uninfluenced by my initial reaction to the cycle. However, two things stick in my mind from that premiere. One was a concern I had that there were times when the viola wasn’t ideally audible; that reservation is addressed here by judicious balancing. The other impression I had was that these songs contain a bitterness, even an anger, that I’d not previously encountered in Venables’ work. That impression has been reinforced, in a wholly positive way, by hearing this present performance.

Venables selected poems by five different war poets. I’m not aware that anyone else has set any of these poems to music. ‘The Send-Off’ takes a Wilfred Owen poem in which the poet speaks of young soldiers marching to the station to take a night train to the front. Appropriately, therefore, the song opens with strong martial rhythms. But when Owen tells us that ‘Dull porters watched them’ those words usher in a much more mysterious, nocturnal mood. Towards the end of the song the martial character returns but this time we are hearing a funeral march; we know that many of the soldiers will not return and the music is suitably anguished. ‘Procrastination’ is next. This is a poem by Francis St Vincent Morris (1896-1917) in which the poet is concerned with a young man who died before he could experience love. Venables’ setting mirrors to perfection the poignancy of Morris’s lines.

The cycle as a whole uses the same title as a poem, Through These Pale Cold Days, by Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). This was his last poem, written a mere three days before his death in action. Rosenberg was Jewish and endured a good deal of abuse on that account during his military service. Tellingly, in the instrumental introduction the viola part hints at Klezmer music. The vocal line, is full of an anguish which Allan Clayton conveys in a most moving fashion. When the singer can say no more the piano and viola conclude the song in a frighteningly intense postlude. Further graphic depths are plumbed in ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ by Siegfried Sassoon. Graham Lloyd describes this as a “mock-scherzo movement”. It’s certainly a very dark scherzo; indeed, I was put in mind of the dark military songs among Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn songs. The idiom is very different, of course, but the ambience, not least the bitter irony and sardonic view of life, bear comparison, I think. The central verse (of three) which describes the young soldier’s self-inflicted death, is set to music that is dramatic and bitter, the bitterness particularly coming out at Sassoon’s pitiless line: “No one spoke of him again”. This is a song that sears the listener, especially in this compelling performance.

The last song has strong Worcestershire connections. Ian Venables has lived in the city of Worcester for many years and, indeed, the first performance of this cycle took place at Royal Worcester Grammar School, where he was a teacher for over twenty years. Ninety alumni of the school perished in World War I. What I didn’t know until reading Graham Lloyd’s notes was that Ian Venables was inspired to write this cycle by the wartime heroics of the Worcestershire Regiment. There’s an interesting parallel here with Elgar, a Worcester man, of course, who inscribed his The Spirit of England “…to the memory of our glorious men, with a special thought for the Worcesters”. The Worcester connection is to the fore in the final song, ‘If you forget’. This poignant poem was written by a Worcester clergyman, Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929). Kennedy served as a chaplain in France and distinguished himself in two ways. One way was by dint of his personal courage – he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917. The second way was through his caring ministry to the troops to whom he was wont to distribute Woodbine cigarettes, earning himself the affectionate nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’. The poem is poignant enough, especially for anyone who knows Kennedy’s background, but Venables’ music takes it to a different level. Underpinned by a piano part that recalls a tolling bell, the vocal line is deeply affecting and Allan Clayton sings it memorably. Once more, this slow processional with a military association put me in mind of Mahler, a composer I know Venables admires. The song is slow and quietly intense and it provides a moving conclusion to the cycle.

Through These Pale Cold Days is a magnificent achievement, providing a compelling and moving synthesis of discerningly chosen texts with music that complements and enhances the words at every turn. Allan Clayton, Graham Lloyd and Eoin Schmidt-Martin give a performance that is totally committed and very eloquent.

This disc is a notable addition not only to the Ian Venables discography but also to the discography of English song. The composer has been superbly served by the musicians, who have brought his music memorably to life. The recording itself, by Mike Hatch (engineer) and Mark Brown (producer) is excellent. The artists can all be heard very clearly as individuals and in well-judged balance with each other. There’s also a pleasing ambience round the sound. The documentation is comprehensive, including very detailed notes about the songs by Graham Lloyd and Ian Venables himself.

This is an essential purchase for all collectors who appreciate English song.