Review of ‘The Song of the Severn’ CD by Andrew Achenbach

Back in May 2011 I derived much pleasure from a Somm anthology devoted to Ian Venables’s chamber music and now find myself no less enamoured with this latest helping of his vocal compositions courtesy of Signum Classics. The composer’s home county of Worcestershire is extolled in The Song of the Severn for baritone, string quartet and piano, completed in 2013 and commissioned by the Malvern Concert Club (whose founder was a certain Edward Elgar). Admirers of, say, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Ireland, Finzi and Barber will immediately feel at home in this resplendently assured work, which clothes poems by Masefield, Housman, John Drinkwater and Philip Worner in sharply memorable music of bewitching lyricism, idiomatic grace and rapt instinct.

Scarcely less rewarding is The Pine Boughs Past Music, a deeply felt tribute from 2010 to the troubled genius of Gloucester-born Ivor Gurney; three of Gurney’s finest poems (‘My heart makes songs on lonely roads’, ‘Soft Rain’ and ‘The Wind’) draw from Venables some acutely sensitive invention, and the cycle ends with a touchingly affirmative setting of an elegy by Leonard Clark (with the bells of Gloucester Cathedral pealing across the Severn meadows). We also get a sequence of nine exquisite songs (four with string quartet backing, the remaining five with piano), each of which demonstrate Venables’s unfailing ability to illuminate the text, indisputable flair for melody and impeccable craftsmanship.

Prospective purchasers can rest assured that Roderick Williams is in stellar form throughout (his lustrous tone beautifully captured by the microphones), and he enjoys outstandingly sympathetic support from Graham J Lloyd (whose pianism is of a very high order) and the Carducci Quartet (one of the most talented emerging ensembles around at present). The composer supplies his own personable and insightful booklet-notes; full texts are included. No lover of the early-20th-century English art song or pastoral tradition should fail to investigate this notable issue.