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A new setting of the requiem mass

20 December 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears a liturgical setting by Ian Venables


IAN VENABLES, born in 1955, has come to be recognised by critics and audiences as one of the most significant British composers stemming from the James MacMillan generation. Over the past few decades, he has been noted, above all, as a master of the English art song.

So, to find this masterly word-setter turning aside to the Latin texts of the requiem mass may come as something of a surprise. But he has shown a natural gift for this very different genre. Two movements (including the Libera Me) are still to come; but it is already clear that his achievement with this new work is manifold. He follows in the tradition of Fauré and Duruflé, and arguably other less-known French composers, to which perhaps add the Francophile Herbert Howells. But Venables is no slavish follower, or cheeky borrower. This was a work devoid of cliché; and his enthusiasm for some non-French composers, Shostakovich and the Russians among them, surely forms part of the story, too.

At its first outing, sung by Gloucester Cathedral Choir at the All Souls’ Day sung eucharist, movements revealed an unusual structure and introduced unexpected harmonic shifts of direction, sometimes interestingly abrupt: for example, the Sanctus, and midway through the Credo and Gloria also. Phrases that might invite softer treatment would sometimes make you sit up; the approach was arresting, even bracing. Equally, some of the asseverative passages that in other Requiems invite a blasting were treated to unexpected hushed tones.

One of the most pleasing things about Venables’s harmonies is that he at no point strives to join the troupe of Baltic or Polish contemporary composers, in whose sacred anthems added-note chordings (which as a result seem scarcely to move) are de rigueur. Venables is not afraid to be tonal, and not afraid to be dissonant.

There are composers — such as Kenneth Leighton, Tony Hewitt-Jones, even W. H. Harris and Charles Wood — who have never been lionised as the modern generation is, but whose word-setting could, and still does, serve as an exemplar. Venables’s new work is in that category. Some well-versed in such things (including, above all, Adrian Partington) are describing his Requiem as a masterpiece, and they may well be right.

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