Review of The Song of the Severn, by John Quinn

Impressive Venables Première Marks 110 Years of Music in Malvern

May 3, 2013

By John Quinn

During his years as a resident of Malvern, Worcestershire, Edward Elgar founded the Malvern Concert Club. That was in 1903. This concert, the final one in the Club’s 110th> season, celebrated that anniversary in some style and it was apparent from the sizeable audience that the Club is in robust health. The concert included the première of a new song cycle by Ian Venables, a resident of Worcestershire since 1986, which had been commissioned by the Malvern Concert Club with the support of the Kay Trust.

The mainstays of the concert were the Carducci Quartet who took part in all four works. Though they are based in Gloucestershire, where I live, I had not previously heard them though very good reports of them had reached me from friends and their recording of music by Graham Whettam was warmly received by MusicWeb International (review). They made a very positive impression from the start, opening with Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ Quartet. I certainly don’t mean to appear to belittle Haydn but this quartet was an ideal aperitif for a programme of essentially Romantic music from the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. The Carduccis offered tight, crisp and stylish playing in Haydn’s delightfully sprightly first movement. The second movement is a theme and four variations on Haydn’s ‘Emperor’s Hymn’, which eventually became the German national anthem. Here I particularly enjoyed the warm tone brought to the melody by cellist Emma Denton in the second variation and also the fine ensemble work, especially in the quieter moments, during the fourth variation. The finale was full of energy and I admired the way the quartet achieved this energy without ever driving the music excessively.

Roderick Williams joined the Carduccis for Samuel Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Barber was no mean singer himself – a baritone – and it was he who sang on the first recording of the work in 1937 (review). As part of my ‘homework’ for this concert I had listened to Barber’s own recording a few hours earlier. It’s an important document – Barber himself self-deprecatingly described the recording as “good enough”, I believe, though it’s much better than that – but Barber’s own delivery of his vocal line, good though it was, couldn’t match the expressiveness of the singing we heard from Roderick Williams. I deliberately did not follow the words during the performance and, frankly, there was little need for, as usual, Williams’ diction was impeccable. He always demonstrates a great care for words and this performance was no exception. As usual with this singer there was relaxed eloquence in everything he sang; for most of the time he seems to make scarcely any physical effort yet the round, even tone is produced seamlessly throughout the compass of his voice and there’s ample power when this is required. His range of tone and colour brought Barber’s music to life as, for example, with the lovely shading at the words “and bring the eternal note of sadness in.” By contrast, “Ah, love, let us be truthful” was a heartfelt exclamation and Williams and his colleagues achieved an intense climax at “neither joy, nor love, nor light.” I thought it was telling that Roderick Williams chose to stand in the centre of the ensemble between the second violinist and the violist; there was no question of this being a vocal solo with quartet accompaniment, rather it was a collegiate performance, as it should be, and it was very fine.

Ian Venables has written over 50 songs, including seven song cycles, and over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to hear about half of them, both in concert (review) and on disc (review). I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve heard to date and I’ve come to identify a number of common threads. One is that this is a composer for whom melody and harmony – the latter often intriguing and/or challenging – is at the heart of everything he writes. Another is that he has a discerning taste in texts to set. He also seems to have a natural affinity for the human voice, writing for it with great understanding and most effectively. Furthermore, his songs fit naturally and effortlessly right into the English art song tradition of which Finzi and Gurney are such prime exemplars. By the time the first performance of The Song of the Severn had finished it was clear that this new cycle further evidenced all those traits.

In an extensive programme note the composer related that in responding to this commission he had decided at the outset that the River Severn, which flows through Worcestershire, should tell the story of the county. He thus sought out poems by poets either born in Worcestershire or inspired by its landscape. The cycle opens with a setting of John Masefield’s ‘On Malvern Hill’. I thought this was a very fine song indeed, not least in the central section where the poem speaks of the time when the Roman legions were quartered on the Malvern Hills. The music here was powerful and dramatic. Venables’ accompaniment was suitably weighty here but the five instrumentalists – pianist Tom Poster had by now joined the Carduccis – balanced their lines expertly so as to blend together well and to avoid drowning the singer. Actually, I doubt they could have drowned Williams’ voice for he projected it strongly, as the music demanded, yet without ever sacrificing the line or forcing his tone.

After a deceptively simple opening A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright was given an increasingly intense setting by Venables, underpinned at times by low tolling piano notes. It was striking, however, that no matter how intense the music was a pronounced melodic vein ran right through the music. I was struck, for example, by the melancholic music at the words ‘Days lost, I know not how’. Elgar’s Music sets the first part of a sonnet by John Drinkwater, written in 1935, the year after Elgar’s death. It’s a gentle piece and I loved the soft, delicate opening with spare but effective accompaniment to long, lyrical vocal phrases. Venables writes that he found he had included, sub-consciously, a reference to Sea Slumber Song from Elgar’s Sea Pictures – I think it was in the second violin and viola parts at the start but I may be wrong. Excellent contrast is provided by another Masefield setting, Laugh, and be merry. This jolly song is essentially but not consistently forthright and earthy. Venables cleverly avoids the obvious by writing in 7/4 time and this irregular metre adds spice to the rhythms. This lively but subtly varied setting drew a collective chuckle from the audience at the end. The cycle ends with Philip Worner’s The River in December. This eloquent song includes much intense, deeply felt music. It’s a very expressive song and it received a stirring, powerful performance.

The cycle and the performers were accorded an extremely enthusiastic reception by the audience and I’m not surprised. This is fine music that communicates most effectively with the listener. As with all effective song settings Ian Venables has carefully chosen his texts and has then enhanced them and made them speak in a new way through the addition of his music. The composer was present and can only have been thrilled by the quality of the performance his new work received. The instrumental parts were superbly delivered and in Roderick Williams the songs found an outstanding interpreter. I’m impatient to hear The Song of the Severn again and I hope that before too long it will be added to the expanding discography of Ian Venables’ music. If and when a recording is made the songs could have no better advocates than tonight’s performers.

Fittingly, the last word in this celebratory concert went to the Malvern Concert Club’s founder. I don’t know why we don’t hear Elgar’s Piano Quintet more often for it’s a fine work, as are those other two chamber works that he wrote around the same time, his Violin Sonata and String Quartet. Maybe the trouble lies with the first movement which never seems to settle. For much of the time it’s a movement of half-lights and shadows and just when you think a train of thought has become established in Elgar’s mind – as, for instance, in the driving, powerful central episode – he changes tack, often for another introspective spell. It is certainly nothing like the Elgar of old.

With the Adagio we are, perhaps, in more familiar Elgar territory. This is a magnificent, moving piece in which Elgar mines a deep vein of melancholy and nostalgia. It’s hard to resist the feeling that in these pages he was recalling and reflecting on a world – and friends? – now gone for ever; not for nothing are the parts for the viola and cello, with their rich autumnal tones, so important in this movement. This is the emotional core of the work and Tom Poster and the Carduccis treated it as such. The music was played marvellously, with all five musicians displaying a wonderful empathy both with the music and with each other; this was true chamber music. There was passionate commitment from all of them at the movement’s heartfelt climax but just as impressive was the sensitivity in the quieter, more inward passages. This was memorable and very special music making. The finale contains much surging, passionate music and, on the surface it seems like the Elgar of old – or it would do, had we not heard the preceding movements. Along the way Elgar pauses more than once for more intimate, reflective passages before resuming the more outgoing material. The musicians were alive to these twists and turns and caught the spirit of Elgar’s music most successfully before bringing the Quintet – and the concert – to an ardent end.

This was a memorable evening. Six marvellous musicians gave fine, dedicated performances and we heard some splendid music. I think Elgar would have rejoiced to find the Concert Club that he founded celebrating its first 110 years in such fine style