Review of ‘The Song of the Severn’ CD by James A. Altena

Ian Venables (b. 1955) is, to date at least, strictly a composer of chamber music, with songs and solo piano pieces predominant in his catalogue. He is unabashedly a composer in the tradition of the English Pastoralist school of Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Gurney, and Warlock, though one with his own strong and distinctive voice. (Venables is also a Gurney scholar who has edited some of that composer’s manuscripts for publication.) Reviews in these pages of three previous CDs of his music have been mixed; whereas Alan Swanson unreservedly applauded a previous Signum CD of songs in 34:4, Jeremy Marchant in a review of Naxos CD in the same issue initially opined that “one is immediately struck by the mastery with which Venables works in his chosen idiom of the English art song,” only to conclude: “Ultimately the disc is frustrating….[A]s the disc proceeds, the sheer relentless plangency becomes increasingly irksome. Venables chooses to write in such a narrow compass of response that there is little variety and not enough interest in the micro-shifts of nuance offered. Some may also be concerned about Venables’ chosen style. It is as if he is soaked in Vaughan Williams, Gurney, and other composers of a bygone age and there is nothing on this disc that couldn’t have been written a hundred years ago.”

 Well, I for one am not either the slightest bit frustrated or concerned; indeed, the elements that Marchant ultimately finds objectionable are precisely the ones I find particularly appealing. And I have no hesitation in saying further that with The Song of the Severn, op. 43, premiered in 2013, Venables has penned an immortal work of genius. These five songs, for voice with piano and string quartet accompaniment, take the Severn River and its historical and natural associations as a common theme. They are absolutely stunning in their poignant beauty, their profoundly noble and moving sense of tragedy and desolation that never turns sentimental or lachrymose, and their perfect union of text and music to a level that rivals Schubert and Mahler. I simply sat riveted to my seat on the sofa, utterly transfixed, my eyes welling up in tears, as I listened to this cycle. Dostoevsky famously said that “The world will be saved by beauty.” So long as there are composers such as Venables producing music such as this, such a hope is vouchsafed for mankind.

If not all of the other songs are quite of the same caliber, some of them certainly are, and all are nothing less than very fine. In addition to being a composer, Venables is an acknowledged authority on the late 19th century poet and critic John Addington Symonds, and this expertise is apparent in his unfailing selection of high-quality poetic texts for his song settings—including here three poems by Gurney and one by Symonds, plus others by John Clare, Thomas Hardy, Alfred Edward Houseman, and Alfred Tennyson—and his unfailing sensitivity in his settings of each and every word in them. The three Gurney songs, plus a tribute to Gurney by Leonard Clarke, comprise the second cycle on this disc, The Pine Boughs Past Music, for voice and piano, composed in 2010. Of the nine miscellaneous songs that follow, the first four accompany the solo voice with a string quartet, and the remaining five with only a piano.

Naturally, exquisite interpretations have everything to do with the magnificence of this disc. Roderick Williams is a prolific recording artist who has successively progressed from being a promising young singer to a leading star in the English-language vocal firmament. Here he is nothing short of superlative, his dark, firm, rich baritone projecting every syllable with rock-solid steadiness, spot-on intonation, and wonderfully nuanced shades of meaning, with diction so scrupulously clear that the song texts in the booklet are totally superfluous for listening purposes. Pianist Graham J. Lloyd (Venables’s partner) and the Carducci String Quartet are equally marvelous performers in their respective roles. Signum has blessed all concerned with ideal recorded sound. The wonderfully detailed booklet notes by the composer give one an in-depth look into his selection of texts and objectives in setting those. They are penned with a rare and winsome graciousness (the dedicatees of all the songs are named) and humility. (Regarding the song “Elgar’s Music” Venables writes: “The music of Edward Elgar certainly casts a long shadow over the Worcestershire landscape and as I live within sight of the Malvern Hills, I cannot—nor do I wish to—escape his influence.”)

To my knowledge, previous recordings of Venables’s songs have all been by tenor Andrew Kennedy. Kennedy sings five of the songs featured here—“Flying Crooked,” “A Kiss,” “Break, break, break,” “Midnight Lamentation,” and “The Hippo”—on the Naxos disc cited above, and also recorded “Flying Crooked,” “A Kiss,” and “The Hippo” with a fourth song not included here, “At Midnight” (Op. 28, No. 2) on the aforementioned previous Signum CD under the title Four Songs With String Quartet. Those are also quite estimable performances, though I have a subjective preference for Williams as I find the darker coloring of a baritone voice more suitable to these pieces. Although the year is still young, I find it almost impossible to imagine that this disc will not be on my 2016 Want List. It offers immortal music in equally imperishable performances; highest possible recommendation. James A. Altena