Wednesday 22 April 2020

Powerful remembrances: Ian Venables's song cycles 'Remember This' and 'Through these pale cold days' on Signum Classics

Ian Venables Remember This, Through these pale cold days, songs; Mary Bevan, Allan Clayton, Carducci String Quartet, Graham J. Lloyd; Signum
Ian Venables Remember This, Through these pale cold days, songs; Mary Bevan, Allan Clayton, Carducci String Quartet, Graham J. Lloyd; Signum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 April 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Andrew Motion's remembrance of the Queen Mother, and a cycle commemorating World War One form the powerful centrepieces of this disc of Ian Venables' songs

This new disc of Ian Venables' songs and song cycles, Love lives beyond the tomb, from Signum Classics features soprano Mary Bevan, tenor Allan Clayton, the Carducci String Quartet, and pianist Graham J Lloyd in Venables' cantata Remember This, Op. 40 for soprano, tenor, string quartet and piano, setting an Andrew Motion poem, the song cycle Through these pale cold days, Op.46 for tenor, viola and piano and a selection of songs for soprano and piano. All are, I think, first recordings.

We open with a group of six songs for soprano and piano, each seemingly a reflection of what I think of as a quintessential quality of Venables' songs, a sense of lyric melancholy with links to the rhapsodic English pastoralism of song writers like Gerald Finzi and Ivor Gurney. Venables' richly textured musical language is tonal and can be more harmonically daring than either of these two composers, but his songs sit clearly in that tradition with a profound response to the English language.

The Way Through, written in 1999, sets a poem by Jennifer Andrews and has a wonderful sense of evoking a particular mood, the concentrated pastoral opening leading to more rhapsodic moments. Aurelia (20160) sets a poem by Robert Nichols, and is full of aching melancholy whilst Chamber Music III, setting James Joyce, brings a feeling of seductive exoticism into its cool textures.

Love lives beyond the tomb was written for Sir Arthur Bliss' widow, Lady Bliss, for her 100th birthday in 2004. A setting of John Clare it is lyrically evocative and profoundly linked to previous English composers' responses to English poetry. With his setting of Edward Thomas' It rains, Venables created one of his longest solo songs with an atmosphere at once bleak and seductive, its length creating something of cumulative power. The final song of the group, I caught the changes of the year, sets poetry by John Drinkwater, in achingly beautiful lyric melancholy.

All six songs are beautifully sung by Bevan, who shapes Venables' lines with great mastery, though perhaps she sacrifices words for beauty of line. Graham J Lloyd provides sensitive accompaniments.

Venables cantata Remember This is a setting of a large scale poem by Andrew Motion [see my interview with Ian for more background to the poem and the setting], which was written in memory of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002. Motion's poem is structured as a continuous whole, with four sonnets evoking particular moods or places embedded into a longer narrative which takes us on her final journey from death, to lying in state, funeral and burial.

Both voices are heard briefly in the evocative the introduction, 'Remember this', where the atmosphere almost recalls RVW's writing for voice, string quartet and piano. This leads to the tenor singing of her final hours, 'Think of the failing body now awake in its final hours’, where Venables uses rather dark arioso which blossoms into more melodic sections, always surrounded by atmospheric writing for the strings. A contrasting sonnet considers new life as evinced by spawning salmon, ‘In the swirl of its pool the home coming salmon has no intuition of anything changed’. Flowing, fluid 'watery' textures complement soprano Mary Bevan's lyrical melodic line to create something fleeting yet complex.

The next narrative 'Think of the flower-lit coffin' is a hauntingly dramatic description of the lying in state from Allan Clayton whose use of timbre here is wonderfully eerie.The next sonnet is about trees, contrasting cyclical nature with humanity, with Venables creating some magical instrumental textures to contrast with Clayton's tenor in a way which is very Britten-esque. In the fifth narrative, the soprano describes the state funeral procession, 'as now the coffin glides through London’s traffic-parted day' in rather austere recitative which creates a profoundly sombre atmosphere. The following sonnet is something of a scherzo, concentrating on the fast-paced race horses with an element of dazzle in the writing for tenor and instruments

Then comes the lying in state, concentrated rather sober description from Mary Bevan with the hint of the funeral march growing in the accompaniment. And finally 'Remember this' which considers the Queen Mother's role in an historical context, with both voices finally together singing a long breathed melody in octaves which grows to something positively rhapsodic.

Throughout the whole piece, Venables articulates the various sections and moods of the text with a sophisticated control of texture and material; his use of quartet and piano for accompaniment brings a lovely sense of variety to the material. Remember this is a remarkable piece, though its particularity will perhaps limit the opportunity for live performance, and we must be glad that it has received such a fine performance here.

Venables' song cycle Through these cold days was written as part of the commemorations for World War I, but Venables choice of poetry provides a different slant to the considerations.

Wilfred Owen's The Send-Off is a powerful account of soldiers' leaving, dramatic and intense. The music is through composed, with Venables using the two instruments (piano and viola) to punctuate the piece. Francis St. Vincent Morris' Procrastination is lyrical yet bleak, love sought, felt then lost

The title song is Isaac Rosenberg's Through these cold days, where the poet imagines himself amongst the ghosts of the dead. Though not explicitly mentioned in the text, Rosenberg's writing cannot help but be shot through with the fact that he was bullied for being Jewish. It opens with a long instrumental prelude with a melancholy viola tune, then Clayton's voice slips in, high and eerily haunted. Ultimately this is a profound and powerful song.

Siegfried Sassoon's Suicide in the Trenches is just that, a bleak consideration of an area of trench warfare not much considered. Surprisingly, Venables setting brings out the popular element in the poem, which works well as an element of contrast which gets progressively darker as the song progresses. The final song, a setting of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy’s poem If You Forget, about the pain of remembering and of forgetting.

Throughout the cycle, Allan Clayton gives us a stunning commitment to both word and music, combined with a willingness to explore a huge variety of tone colours and take risks. He is finely partnered by Eoin Schmidt-Martin and Graham J Lloyd, with Venables using the viola to introduce some wonderful tone colours.

Whilst the component parts of this recital are individually powerful and striking, it has to be admitted that there is an element of necessity about the programme. Given the decision to record Remember this, the need for something for both Mary Bevan and for Allan Clayton, as well as the desire to record hitherto unrecorded elements of the composer's repertoire. I also have to confess to my usual temptation to wonder what the rest of an opus number is like. Given that, say, we are being presented with Opus 41 Number 6, I cannot help but wish that we could have heard the other five numbers.

That said, these superb performances sweep away all doubts. And whilst I am unlikely to play this disc regularly from beginning to end, it will be one to which I return regularly to sample the various elements which make up the programme.

Ian Venables - The Way Through, Op.33 No. 1
Ian Venables - Aurelia, Op.37 No. 3
Ian Venables - Chamber Music III, Op.41 No. 6
Ian Venables - Love lives beyond the tomb, Op.37 No.1
Ian Venables - It Rains, Op.33 No.2
Ian Venables - I caught the changes of the year, Op.45 No.1
Ian Venables - Remember This, Op.40
Ian Venables - Through these pale cold says, Op.46
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Emma Denton)
Graham J Lloyd (piano)
Recorded at All Saints' Church, East Finchley, 17-18 January 2019
SIGNUM SIGCD617 1CD [78.42]

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