Tuesday 21 July 2020

Contemplative and contemporary: world premiere recording of Ian Venables's Requiem from Gloucester Cathedral

Ian Venables Requiem; Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, Jonathan Hope, Adrian Partington; SOMM
Ian Venables Requiem; Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, Jonathan Hope, Adrian Partington; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A contemplative setting of the Requiem mass by an English composer best known for his song; it sits firmly in the English tradition yet also includes other influences

I first heard Ian Venables' Requiem at its first London performance in 2019 when Victoria Ely conducted Evoke at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street [see my review]. Ian Venables' Requiem was premiered in November 2018 by Gloucester Cathedral Choir, conductor Adrian Partington, and these same forces, with organist Jonathan Hope, have given the work its first recording on SOMM, with motets and anthems by John Sanders, John Joubert, Ivor Gurney, and Ian Venables.

Conductor Adrian Partington was very much involved in the genesis of the work. Venables had written a short choral work, setting the Introit Requiem aeternam for a memorial service, at the time an unusual venture into sacred choral music for a composer who has been most associated with song. At first reluctant to write a Requiem, with encouragement from Partington, Venables expanded this into the full Requiem. Venables' selection of texts very much reflects that used by Faure and Durufle in their Requiems. He deliberately does not set the Dies Irae, but nor does he make his own selection of non-liturgical texts as Herbert Howells did in his Requiem.

Venables' teachers included Richard Arnell (1917-2009), himself a pupil of John Ireland, and John Joubert (1927-2019), whose teachers included Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush, and Venables' own music owes clear allegiance to this stream of 20th century English music, tonal, complex, mixing contemplative, pastoral and mystical elements with other more dramatic ones.

Yet, if you say English composer and Requiem, very few works spring to mind. Stanford's Requiem from 1896 is a large scale work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, whilst the large and important corpus of Anglican church music which was written in the 20th century (with Herbert Howells sitting firmly in the centre) concentrates on the English services, whilst the masses written for Westminster Cathedral (notably that by RVW) concentrate on the more standard mass.

In style, Venables' Requiem however also owes something to the French tradition in the way the organ comments and amplifies the textures. Venables eschews the textures of Herbert Howell's Anglican church services, with their strong organ parts supporting choral elements which grow from sturdy unisons. Instead, we hear a lot of unaccompanied passages, and sparely written ones, with the organ as an additional character in the mix. The result, of course, is a far more challenging work to prepare, but gives us a very sophisticated manipulation of textures, especially as the composer varies his choral writing by using soloists (Catherine Perfect, alto, Arthur Johnson and Alex Taylor, trebles, Matthew Clark, baritone).
The work has a contemplative feel, and though there are plenty of moments of drama, these always return to a more thoughtful texture. What, of course, is lacking from my comparisons to works like the Durufle Requiem is plainchant, Venables writes from a secular English tradition and whilst some of his melodies are chant-like, the whole piece is imbued very much with those feelings of previous English choral works of the 20th century, both sacred and secular. That said, the aura of both Faure and Durufle's works still hangs around too, in the distance, lending the piece a certain distance from the English tradition, and sophistication of texture.

Much of Venables work in the last 30 years has been song, and so presenting a song composer with a sacred text like that of the Requiem does not mean that he hangs up his socks, here Venables is clearly responding to the text and some movements have a clear sense of a thread running through them, not a narrative of course but something akin. I would love to hear what he could make of setting a large scale text like the Credo and Gloria, and whilst I understand that the Dies Irae might be antithetical, I do wonder what his song-writing narrative drama might have brought to it.

The recording combines all elements of Gloucester Cathedral choir, 18 boys, 20 girls and 12 adults (professional lay clerks and student choral scholars). Having children on the top line gives a lovely transparency to the music, and throughout both Partington and his choir give a highly responsive account of Venables music, bringing out the beauties of texture throughout.

The accompanying motets and anthems start with one by John Sanders, who was organist and master of the choristers at Gloucester Cathedral from 1967 to 1994, and the anthem Dedication is one of Sanders' last works, written for a wedding in 2003. This is followed by John Joubert's 2017 anthem O eternal God, written for Gloucester Cathedral Choir for its celebrations of Joubert's 90th birthday, and then Ivor Gurney's anthem God mastering me. Venables has long been an admirer of Gurney's music, though Gurney wrote little sacred music. God mastering me is a late work from 1920/21, setting Gerald Manley Hopkins, which was edited by Venables and premiered by Gloucester Cathedral Choir in 2015.  The final work on the disc is fascinating, Venables first choral composition written in 1993, O Sing aloud to God. This is a far more traditional English anthem, by a composer who clearly knew work by composers like Joubert and William Mathias (who, I know, is Welsh).

This is a lovely disc, and the work itself is highly practical in terms of forces and size. It gets a fine performance from Adrian Partington and the Gloucester forces and the disc is bound to win a lot of friends for this richly sophisticated work. And I hope, tempt other choirs into performing it.

Ian Venables (born 1955) - Requiem [40:25]
John Sanders (1933-2003) - Dedication [3:01]
John Joubert (1927-2019) - O eternal God [4:38]
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) - God mastering me [3.20]
Ian Venables - O sing aloud to God [7:32]
Choir of Gloucester Cathedral
Jonathan Hope (organ)
Adrian Partington (director)
Recorded at Gloucester Cathedral, 12 & 13 November 2019.
SOMM SOMMCD0618 1CD [59:01]
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