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String Quartet, Op 32


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.

from notes by Graham J Lloyd © 2010


Venables: At midnight
SIGCD204Download only


Movement 1: Allegro con energia – Meno mosso ed appassionato – Più vivo
Track 9 on SIGCD204 [7'16] Download only
Movement 2: Allegretto scherzando
Track 10 on SIGCD204 [2'40] Download only
Movement 3: Adagio e molto espressivo – Presto agitato
Track 11 on SIGCD204 [11'05] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD204 track 11

Adagio e molto espressivo – Presto agitato
Recording date
3 June 2009
Recording venue
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Nicholas Parker
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. Venables: At midnight (SIGCD204)
    Disc 1 Track 11
    Release date: April 2010
    Download only
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