The Songs of Ian Venables (Naxos CD) by Phillip Lancaster

The British Music Society, March 2011

Review by Phillip Lancaster

The last year has been one of great significance for Ian Venables; a year that has by chance coincided with his first as a full time composer. As well as seeing premiere performances at such as Wigmore Hall, it has seen three commercial recordings: a disc of songs and chamber music on Signum Records, including his String Quartet—perhaps one of Venables’s most original works; a disc of chamber music issued by Somm Records, notably including the Piano Quintet; and a disc of song on the ubiquitous Naxos label. This latter disc is the first in Naxos’s English Song Series—a series taken over from Collins Classics upon their demise—to be devoted to the work of a living composer, and it is disc with which I am concerned here.

The Naxos recording opens with the most significant work on this disc: the premiere recording of the 2005–6 song cycle for tenor, clarinet and piano, On the Wings of Love. The title of the work is an intriguing one: although it doesn’t admit so in the otherwise usefully informative CD sleeve notes, the title of the cycle is drawn from Plato’s Symposium, which, Venables writes elsewhere, examines ‘the various forms that love can take’, looking at love in its broadest sense, ‘not just in the realm of human affection’. The one overarching theme, however, is the constancy of love. In whatever form it takes, it is ever present; in place and heart; from gods to mortals.

The opening song of the cycle, ‘Ionian Song’—a setting of words by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy—somehow eptitomises Venables; it is almost a distillation of his work. The opening chord is perhaps one of Venables’s favourite: an E minor chord with added seventh and minor ninth that seems to open the vault of existential questioning. The lamenting figurations in the piano and clarinet are dominated by the interval of a minor third, which, although common in music, Venables appears to fashion into a unique thumbprint. Through this accompaniment the voice poses its long lyric narrative, beginning low in the register and gradually ascending to the light upper voice. The clarinet writing in this song—a perfect counterpoint to the voice and piano, here, as in the rest of the cycle—seems redolent of Herbert Howells’s intense lyrical clarinet sonata.

The outer sections of the second song, a setting of a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, pick up on its opening lines: ‘The moon sails out / the church bells die away’. Far from dying away, the clarinet, piano and voice all take on the turning figure of the bells, constantly intertwining, the sound of the bells seeming to live on in he memory. The sound of bells continue into the third song, a setting of Jean de Sponde’s ‘Sonnet XI’, in which we find the heart of the cycle. This bell-like tone illustrates the timelessness o the cycle, which aspires to eternity in its conception and breadth, and in its universality of theme. Here and in its concluding songs we find Venables contemplating not only love, but time and death. There is an intensity to the writing—as in much of Venable’s work—that is at danger of self-consuming its thinker, echoing the self-consumption spoken of by de Sponde and John Clare, as set in Venable’s Invite to Eternity. It is a passionate intensity that has deep, dark undercurrents that in a lesser hand could smack of self-indulgence but which here perhaps belies a loneliness that appears at odds with the notion of love. Venables is searching for and asking such rare intensity that one cannot help but be drawn into his work.

The set of Venetian Songs, Love’s Voice, has been previously recorded by Nathan vale fro Somm Records. It continues the theme of love, but in a more overt way, retaining the same passionate intensity of On the Wings of Love, although not without a hint of irony: set in Venice—what is traditionally a city of romance—the cycle tells of unrequited love. One might have hoped—as so often on CDs—for a longer gap between the two works: the gap between the cycles is the same as between the songs. They should be taken in independently, so programme your CD player accordingly.

The opening song, ‘Fortunate Isles’, seems to contradict John Donne’s famous dictum, ‘No man is an island’. The piano depicts the having oceans that divide one isle from another, while the singer expresses the seeming hopelessness of willing to love: it will happen to another, but not to me. This sense of isolation is perhaps subconsciously echoed in the opening motif in the vocal line, recalling the words from Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, ‘If I forget thee’.

‘Fortunate Isles’ sets the emotional landscape for the remainder of the cycle, dwelling on an encounter during one of Symonds’s numerous visits to Venice, depicted in ‘The Passing Stranger’: the poet is haunted by the image of a figure who, in a ‘fleeting glance’ from a passing gondola, awoke the ‘old sanctities of human love’. In the reverie of the third song the poet there is an emptiness, but not without a glow of hope and excitement. However, it is only at the end of the cycle that Love’s voice is finally heard, but only to admonish: it would have been better ‘toward death to glide, Soul-full of bliss, Than with long life unsatisfied, Life’s crown to miss.’

Compared with the Nathan Vale recording, the assuredness of Kennedy and Burnside’s interpretation, with the extraordinary range of expressive hues that Kennedy ahs within his voacal palate, make this preferred interpretation.

The remainder of the disc consists of individual songs, some of which are taken from opused groups, although not necessarily presented in order. These include now popular trifles such as ‘Flying Craooked’ and ‘The Hippo’, as well as more profound songs, from the contented companionship of ‘Midnight Lamentation’ to the wonderfully serene vision of September in the Malverns in the setting of Symond’s ‘At Malvern’. Whether you are coming to Venable’s work anew or are seasoned followers, this disc is one that will enthrall and capture. And at only budget price, there is nothing to stop you exploring this deeply passionate work.