The Complete Solo Piano Music on Naxos, by Rob Barnett

“Music that is accessible, subtle and emotionally eloquent”

by Rob Barnett

I first tried to write about the works of English composer Ian Venables more than a decade ago during the early years of MusicWeb International (review). Since then other reviewers have written with greater acuity but similar enthusiasm about Venables’ music.

My regard for his music has not faded with hearing this CD. My judgements and generalisations and above all my welcome for this life-benefiting music are confirmed.

The 2001 Caprice – written for Phillip Dyson – belongs squarely and with high distinction among the finer works of British piano music. Its world is tonal, melancholy and pastoral with a lineage traceable back to Finzi, Gurney and Howells. From sixteen years before the Caprice come the four Stourhead Follies. They were written after a visit to Stourhead House and Gardens in Wiltshire. The music is gentle but not insipid, confident without any hint of braggadoccio. It is shot through with bell sounds both assertive and in their final decay into silence. There’s a vigorous folk-dance quality to the third of these four “Romantic Impressions”. Strangely enough Venables in this work had me thinking of Mompou’s meditative piano solos and of Rodrigo at his most becalmed.

The Three Short Pieces comprise a sprightly folksy Caprice, an expectedly innocent and slightly drowsy Dance of the Teddy Bears and a mistily somnolent Folk-Tune that reminded me of the similarly slow-pulsed Folk-Tune by Eugene Goossens.

The Nightingale and the Rose is based on the heartbreaking Wilde story of the same name. It began life as music for a children’s ballet. Venables has a gift for such understated yet emotional material and this is reflected with fidelity in this Impromptu.

Portrait of Janis is a further emotionally eloquent piece, this time written in 2000 and premiered in California. The music inhabits, in part, the same world as the instrumental lines in RVW’s song Bredon Hill. I see that amongst the funders for this fine disc are the RVW and John Ireland trusts.

The final entry is also both the oldest (1976) and the longest. It is his Op. 1 sonata In Memoriam DSCH. This is a three movement piece in which two ten minute Molto adagios frame a sly yet happily spiky Allegro scherzando. The outer movements radiate a movingly poignant and almost reverential dignity. The latter captures the spirit of a very slowly yet freely paced funeral march. Given its subject and its date it is no surprise that the Sonata stands out in this company – not typical Venables but part of his development and touching and potent in its own right.

Graham J Lloyd is a great advocate for this subtle, accessible and emotionally eloquent music.

The sound is unobtrusively supportive. The notes by Ian Flint get the message across without resort to undue technicality while providing those biographical linkages we all like to have at hand.

Rob Barnett