Review of ‘The Song of the Severn’, by Christopher Morley

Premiere – ‘The Song of The Severn’ at Forum Theatre, Malvern
5* Review
The Birmingham Post, 10th May 2013

By Christopher Morley

Ian Venables has always been a courageous composer, unafraid to bare his soul in music which speaks so communicatively to the listener.

But his latest composition takes that courage one step further, delving into an Elgarian memory-bank in a manner which is never parasitical but totally convincing. And appropriate, too, given that this Song of the Severn was premiered last Thursday to a full-house audience at Malvern Concert Club, who commissioned the work with the help of funding from the Kay Trust; Elgar is everywhere in the air in Malvern, composing many of his masterpieces here and in the vicinity, and co-founding the Club 110 years ago.

The Song of the Severnis a celebration of that great river just as much as A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad celebrates that wonderful county through which the river meanders i ts way. Venables sets poems by John Masefield (two of them), Housman himself, John Drinkwater and Philip Worner, mostly sombre in tone, but leavened by the folkiness of the second Masefield setting “Laugh, and be merry”, a poem worthy of Thomas Hardy in its gritted-teeth gaiety. This is a work which flows so naturally (Severn-imagery comes even into this review) as the t exts unfold, the baritone soloist (Roderick Williams here could never be bettered), string quartet (the amazingly empathetic Carducci) and piano (the ever-attentive subtle colourings of Tom Poster) delivering these songs with great depths of understanding and commitment.

Elgar hovers right from the start. Anyone who knows his Caractacus will have sensed this immediately from the subject (Brits versus Romans) of the opening setting, Masefield’s “On Malvern Hill”, but there are subsequent references to that composer’s Sea Pictures (which Venables tells me crept into the score subliminally), and one of which Venables confessed himself unaware: the rocking sound of the ship’s engines in the 13th Enigma variation. And the final song, Worner’s “The River in December”, brings another composer to mind. This is a farewell reflection, sad, wise, quietly lamenting. Its mesmeric repetition of the concluding words “remember me”, pentatonically set, haunt the memory — as does the “ewig” of Mahler’s similarly valedictory Das Lied von der Erde

Williams and the Carducci had warmed up with a thoughtful, considered account of Barber’s Dover Beach. Haydn’s Emperor Quartet combined both jauntiness and elegance, and Tom Poster collaborated almost concerto-like at times with the Carducci in Elgar’s enigmatic, rueful Piano Quintet.