Thursday 3 August 2023

Ian Venables' Portraits of a Mind and Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge on a disc that manages to be far more than a simple tribute

Ralph Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge, Four Hymns, Ian Venables: Portrait of a Mind; Alessandro Fisher, Navarra Quartet, William Vann; Albion Records

Ralph Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge, Four Hymns, Ian Venables: Portraits of a Mind; Alessandro Fisher, Navarra Quartet, William Vann; Albion Records

A first outing for Ian Venables' birthday companion piece to RVW's On Wenlock Edge in a disc that proves superbly musical, engaging and profoundly satisfying

It is a brave composer who writes a work as a companion for an established classic, but that is what Ian Venables has done. On this disc from Albion Records, Venables' Portraits of a Mind is paired with Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge. Both are written for the same forces, here tenor Alessandro Fisher, the Navarra Quartet and pianist William Vann. And the third work on the disc is an imaginative new version of RVW's Four Hymns created by Iain Farrington.

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society commissioned Ian Venables to write Portraits of a Mind for the 150th anniversary of RVW's birth on 12 October 2022. The work was premiered at the Oxford Lieder Festival that month.

Fisher begins On Wenlock Edge with a lovely sense of drama combined with a fine sense of line (the two do not always go together). Ably supported and partnered by Vann and the quartet, this is a performance full sensitive to the way RVW brings out the drama of Housman's text, yet with Fisher's seductive, Italianate line and terrific diction. 'From far, from eve and morning' begins with same sense of line, slow and seductive, haunting even, supported by Vann's warmly sympathetic piano. 'Is my team ploughing' brings out the dramatic elements, as Fisher ably characterises the dialogue, making much of RVW's quite gentle differentiation between the two voices (George Butterworth's setting of the poem makes much more of the difference). Here, though we enjoy the colouration from Vann and the Quartet, it is Fisher's feeling for the words that strike you. 'Oh, when I was in love with you' is beautifully performed, rather perky and entirely delightful in the way both Fisher and the instrumentalists colour the words. 'Bredon Hill' is the most Ravel-inspired of the songs, and the opening is completely magical here, followed by Fisher's sympathetic evocation of the story. Words, music and vocal line joining as one. The folk influence is strong in 'Clun', but it moves beautifully from the free abandon to a mystical close.

I missed the premiere of Venables' cycle at Oxford Lieder Festival but I did catch Alessandro Fisher in On Wenlock Edge with the Nash Ensemble at the birthday concert at Wigmore Hall [see my review] and I can think of few tenors I would rather hear performing the cycle. And here Fisher's lovely combination of expressiveness, Italianate warmth, superb line and fine diction is supported and partnered by sophisticated instrumental performances.

Unlike RVW, Venables has chosen quite a diverse group of poems for his cycle, but the selection has a point to it, as Venables explains in his programme note, "I wanted to explore the principal elements that informed his creativity and so ‘paint’ a musical portrait in which each song reflects a different aspect of his creative mind. To discover these elements one need go no further than Vaughan Williams’s aesthetic creed: ‘the object of art is to reach out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty. The duty of the composer is to find the ‘mot juste’. It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before, as long as it is the right thing to say at the right moment’. After many months spent reading a wide range of poetry I eventually found several poems that drew upon the subjects I wished to present, namely: Nature; The Meaning of Art; Love; Death and Transcendence."

His selection begins with George Meredith's The Lark Ascending which inspired RVW's work of the same name, and is followed by Ursula Vaughan Williams' Man makes delight his own, then Robert Louis Stevenson's From a Railway Carriage and Christina Rossetti's Echo, and finally Walt Whitman's A Clear Midnight. There are RVW links beyond the Meredith. Ursula Vaughan Williams was, of course, RVW's wife whilst Stevenson and Rossetti were both poets whom RVW set in his early mature songs, and Whitman's work threads its way throughout RVW's output.

'The Lark Ascending' begins with a lovely instrumental melody and then Fisher enters with Venables' rather moving melody. This is a slow moving vocal line supported by more mobile instruments, warm approachability developing into real passion. This is the sort of song that feels as if it has always existed, not because it sounds like something else, but because it simple feels right. I like the whole cycle, but this in itself feels a fine achievement. 'Man makes delight his own' begins delicately, just voice and evocative piano texture as Fisher and Vann contemplate Ursula's lovely, expressive words. Short and elegant, there are hints of rapture in the vocal line and perhaps mysticism too. 'From a Railway Carriage' is wonderfully descriptive and highly evocative; the scherzo of the group, this song vividly captures the sights and sounds of Stevenson's poem in music that is mobile yet never hurries too much. The longest song in the group, 'Echo' begins with Fisher giving us a slow, darkly seductive line 'Come to me in the silence of the night', accompanied by evocative instrumental textures. The song is slow build, and Fisher is finely able at creating the large paragraphs suitable from Venables' approach to setting the expansive sweep of Rossetti's lines. We end with the short Whitman verse, 'A clear Midnight'; so clever of Venables to be able to boil Whitman's verbose transcendence down to a few lines. And the result is a song that feels the closest RVW's On Wenlock Edge, yet like the opening song in Venables' cycle, it has a naturalness, a feeling that it always existed.

Venables can have no greater exponents for Portraits of a Mind than Fisher, Vann and the Navarra Quartet. Every note of their performance feels natural and well-lived-in. I loved the music, and feel that this first recording does the cycle justice. Whilst Venables' music does make an apt complement to RVWs, I cannot help feeling that the cycle has more than enough of its own sophistication and gumption to stand on its own two feet.

RVW wrote Four Hymns for tenor, viola and string orchestra between 1912 and 1914. Rapturous settings of lyrics by 17th century poets, there was evidently an early arrangement for tenor, piano and string quartet. This has not survived, but for the disc, Iain Farrington has done duty. Fisher brings exemplary tone and line to the songs, imbuing these complex texts with superb passion. As ever with his performances, I was struck by the combination of Italian tone and sense of line, with superb attention to the words. But more than that, he seems to feels these sometimes obscure poets in his bones. And I love Farrington's arrangement, I do hope it sticks.

This is one of those discs I started to listen to because I knew the composer and performers, and continued thanks to the wonderfully emotional and finely crafted performances, then along with the way Venables' new music managed to take hold in my brain. Highly recommended.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - On Wenlock Edge
Ian Venables (born 1955) - Portraits of a Mind
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Four Hymns
Alessandro Fisher (tenor)
The Navarra Quartet (Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, Annabelle Meare, Sascha Bota, Brian O'Kane)
William Vann (piano)
Recorded at St George's Church, Headstone, Harrow, 14-15 November 2022

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