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Ian Venables (b1955)

At midnight

Songs and chamber music
Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Dante Quartet
Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2009
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: April 2010
Total duration: 57 minutes 37 seconds

Described as 'one of the finest song composers of his generation', Ian Venables’ music for voice and string quartet draws on a wealth of literary and musical sources, in particular from the nineteenth Century romantic tradition. Performances on this disc come from British tenor Andrew Kennedy and the award winning Dante Quartet.


'Ian Venables has a distinctive "voice", no less his own on account of its incorporating accents of his forebears … Andrew Kennedy does well … strong, assured and expressive' (Gramophone)
Ian Venables is a worthy successor to those many art-song composers who, from the 19th century renaissance of British music to the present day—from Parry and Stanford and continuing through to Finzi—have considered the setting of English words to music as central to their artistic creeds. Amongst their number, Hubert Parry, Ivor Gurney, Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock and the lesser-known Fritz Hart composed songs at an astonishing rate: between them they wrote a staggering 1416. And happily, the need to set words to music remains as strong a force for composers today as it was to Thomas Campion and his contemporaries in Elizabethan England.

Ian Venables impresses as a composer who has not only added significantly to the genre of English art-song but is also contributing to its continuing development. His burgeoning reputation is founded upon an artistic integrity and obvious sensitivity in setting words to music that have been singled out for praise by leading musicologists such as the late Christopher Palmer: ‘Venables’s songs are beautiful miniatures…’ and Stephen Banfield: ‘[Venables has]…a genius for melancholy, for understanding melodic, harmonic and poetic tradition…’. In addition, however, he has composed a raft of chamber works that includes a majestic Piano Quintet Op 27 and one of the main works on this disc, the powerful String Quartet Op 32. It was the composition of the Piano Quintet in 1995 and a concomitant development in string technique that broadened Venables’s approach to song writing; Songs of Eternity and Sorrow Op 36 for tenor, string quartet and piano (SIGCD112) and Invite to Eternity Op 31 for tenor and string quartet being two important cycles from this period.

The latter cycle found its inspiration in the works of the Northamptonshire-born poet John Clare (1793-1864). Written in 1997, Venables felt that the emotional possibilities inherent in the string quartet combination would allow him a much wider and varied tonal palette in which to express the multiplicity of moods that are found in Clare’s four poems. The work’s genesis can be found in a letter written to the composer by Andrew Glazzard, to whom the final song in the cycle is dedicated. He introduced Venables to Clare’s poetry in 1993 by sending him the poem ‘I am’; he was then approached by Patrick and Brenda Aydon, who commissioned the complete cycle. The four poems chosen by the composer reflect the many facets of Clare’s unconventional life.

‘Born upon an angel’s breast’ opens with a lengthy and arresting introduction for string quartet, which leads to the first of three recitative-like passages, which take up the theme of love as unsustainable, belonging ‘to sin and death’. These are pivotal sections in the movement and are broken by moments of exquisite tenderness where, amidst this harsh message, the listener is told that love is, in fact, the only saviour of the soul. Here we can see Clare as a spokesman for humanity: they lie, it is suggested, but he tells us not. The tender string writing at important points in the movement provides a sublime backdrop to some of Clare’s most profound words.

In contrast, ‘An invite to Eternity’ opens with the question: ‘Wilt thou go with me, sweet maid…?’; the short string introduction capturing immediately the interrogatory nature of the poem. Its mocking mood is mirrored skilfully in the accompanying rocking figure, which permeates the movement. Clare was adept at sudden changes of direction in his poetry, and what was seemingly innocent becomes existentially taut, necessitating sudden changes of mood. In the second stanza, Venables reflects this change of emotion by accompanying the more angular vocal writing with a gritty viola figure and pointillistic gestures from the other instruments. The third and fourth stanzas give balance to the overall structure and, by way of a coda, the quartet begins what seems to be a move into yet another verse, only to be halted by an augmentation of the opening rocking figure which ends the movement as questioningly as it began.

‘Evening bells’ evokes a landscape of rustic tranquillity, broken only by distant bells and ‘zephyrs swelling’. It is a lively, highly driven movement, which uses the intervals of a fourth and fifth in combination with an insistent rhythmic pedal, which dominates the texture; the latter’s relentless quality allowing for an almost spontaneous interplay to occur between voice and string quartet. Contrast is provided in the third stanza, where ruminative tremolandos accompany a more lyrical vocal line.

‘I am’ is without doubt a profoundly moving and poignant setting of Clare’s most famous poem. Taking us through the emotions of fear and self-pity, to longing and ultimately acceptance, it opens with a solo ‘cello, which is soon joined by the other strings as they play what can only be described as a ‘cry’. The longest movement in the cycle, it uses a desolate harmonic language, contrasting yearning vocal lines with tortured counterpoint, reaching an almost atonal climax on the words, ‘Even the dearest that I love the best / Are strange….’. The music that follows is deeply moving. Here the string quartet interlude (a transformation of the cycle’s opening) prepares us for a moment of extreme longing where Clare dreams of ‘…scenes where man hath never trod / A place where woman never smiled or wept…’. Despite the sustained mood of its closing bars, the composer returns to the opening ‘cry’ which breaks the feeling of resignation and longing momentarily, before ending on a single sustained note, intimating musically that although these emotional states may have been reached, they are never fully liberated from the spectres of past pains.

Unlike Invite to Eternity, the Four Songs with string quartet are arrangements of existing works that were originally written for piano and voice. Out of Ian Venables’s many essays in this form, the present writer chose those that he felt would be enhanced by the many different colours and sonorities available from a string quartet but which also enhanced the overall mood and emotional power of each song.

In ‘A kiss’ from ‘Moments of Vision’, Thomas Hardy contrasts the naïve impulses of an innocent love, with love as an eternal theme. Its two stanzas are treated strophically but with some subtle variation, and are flanked by a lengthy introduction and short coda. Throughout the song, the prevailing mood is one of wistful nostalgia, in music that is both serenely diatonic and radiantly lyrical.

The two songs Opus 28 are examples of Ian Venables’s refined sensibility, contrasting the harmonic subtleties and ambiguities of his setting of Robert Graves’s poem ‘Flying Crooked’ with the dream-like atmosphere of one of Edna St Vincent Millay’s many sonnets.

In ‘Flying crooked’, Graves’s whimsical poem about a cabbage-white butterfly, the prevailing mood of levity is given extra lightness by the use of playful pizzicatos. It ends with a whole tone scale on the word ‘crooked’, which not only mirrors perfectly the haphazard flight of the unfortunate butterfly in question but also adds to the feeling of mock-gravitas. It is one of Venables’s most popular songs and came about as the result of having being sent the poem by the late Lady Bliss, to whom the song is dedicated and at whose home it received its first performance.

By contrast, Edna St Vincent Millay’s beautiful sonnet—given the title ‘At midnight’ by the composer—is a poignant description of one woman’s (most likely Millay’s) reminiscences on past loves and it is a remarkable poem, given that Millay was only in her early 30s when it was written. Here Venables’s rich harmonic language and deft melodic writing combine to heighten the sensual, as well as nostalgic nature of the poem.

In Theodore Roethke’s ‘The hippo’, the transition from piano to string quartet was seamless, as in the original, the piano part never moved outside a four-part texture. It too is deeply wistful, but here the composer does not provide parody, but instead creates a mood which supports the poem’s narrative. A moment of levity is provided by a deliciously understated pause on the word ‘all’ in the context ‘He starts to yawn, it takes all day’. This charming miniature ends as it began—its purely modal tonality adding greatly to its wistfulness.

It was in 1989 that Ian Venables set about writing what he thought would be his first string quartet, unaware at that time that it would ultimately metamorphose into one of his finest chamber works in another form; the Piano Quintet Op 27 (1995). It was not until three years later that he fulfilled a compositional need to write a significant essay in this form.

His String Quartet Op 32 came to fruition as the result of a commission from the ‘Droitwich Concert Club’ in celebration of their 25th Anniversary in 1998, and was written with financial support from the West Midlands Arts Council. A work of great emotional power and self-confidence, it is both gritty and at times harsh and uncompromising in tone, but is still firmly rooted in traditional tonality, using dissonance and occasional atonality as a means of dramatic expression.

The first movement begins with a granitic ostinato, above which soars a virile melody from the first violin in the rhythmically disconcerting time signature of 7/8; the tension arising from these three elements accounting for the arresting nature of this movement. A slower, more lyrical passage follows, where melodic lines are passed between all four instruments. A climax of rapt intensity leads to a soaring violin cantilena, accompanied by syncopated lower strings, after which we are plunged headlong into the maelstrom that is the remainder of the movement. Here, rhythmic cells from the opening theme become the dominant feature, with the return of the opening material—this time more pungent given what has gone before—maintaining a mood of sustained nervosity, until the final two bars end the movement in a calm and questioning way.

The second movement Allegretto Scherzando immediately lightens the mood, with its playful pizzicatos, deft counterpoint and modal melodic lines. Two motifs of rhythmic importance—one trill like, the other based on an arpeggio figure—dance around the main theme with notable strength of purpose, adding considerably to the prevailing mood of optimism. After much virtuoso playing from all four instruments, a throw away gesture ends this short but radiant movement.

The third movement is without doubt the emotional core of the work. Ranging in mood from sublime tenderness to searing intensity, its firm structural sense is combined with a deeply personal poetry. This is nowhere more apparent than in the opening ‘cello threnody, with its ‘Second-Viennese School’ angularity and ambiguous tonality. Harmonic tension is wrought from the second subject which leads to a deeply poignant melody based on the initial threnody, only this time accompanied by throbbing syncopation. As if from nowhere, a playful theme arrives, presented pizzicato, but even here this playfulness is undermined by yet more harmonic tension, ultimately finding its release in a melody brimming with open-air freshness. A passionate outpouring leads to a burgeoning of contrapuntal activity as various themes vie with one another. A central fugue, artfully contoured from the ‘cello threnody, ushers in a climax of moving eloquence. After a passage of unrestrained lyricism, the earlier violin cantilena returns, only this time in lachrymose dialogue with the ‘cello, ultimately giving way to a bravura coda which ends the work in a spirit of boisterous optimism. Ian Venables’s String Quartet is dedicated to Sir Michael Tippett whom the composer and present writer had the privilege of visiting shortly before his death in 1998.

Graham J Lloyd © 2010

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