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Music: Ian Venables, Requiem (Gloucester Cathedral Chori), and other recordings

27 November 2020

Roderic Dunnett hears music by Ian Venables

THE new Requiem by Ian Venables, composed in 2018 and recorded last year, is a masterpiece; and I also have to extol the captivating per­formance. Adrian Partington gen­erates from Gloucester Cathedral Choir — men. boys, and girls (the shared texture works here) — a re­­markable intimacy with, and sensit­ivity to­­wards, the liturgy (on SOMMCD 0618).

Duruflé, like Fauré, aspired to something similar. So does the Requiem by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. There may be some affin­ity in genre, with Venables’s French precursors, but he is far from sub­sumed by them. Rather, he reveals a recognisably individual style.

The lucidity of his masterful word-setting rests particularly on a trove of simple, recurring, and re­­worked motivic patterns and de­­vices. Similarly, the unforeseen cli­maxes, as in the violent end of his evocative Offertorium.

An especial surprise is the mel­low Sanctus. Not many have set “Heaven and earth are full of your glory” in a such a tender manner.

Where, then, does deepest “Tartarus” lurk? In the Libera Me. Venables delivers an apocalyptic explosion, a terrifying tsunami. Latterly, the excellent men, promi­n­ent at the start, return, part plain­song, part a marching Carmina Burana. The Lux Aeterna’s conclu­sion is no soft pushover either.

Any part of this captivating set­ting could be performed as a church anthem. It has rich beauty and warmth, while its stylistic freshness does abundant justice to the shift­ing liturgical text.

The composer’s anthem — by turns rollicking and tranquil — O Sing Aloud to God (Psalm 77 and more) is also sung here, with three Gloucester-related composers: Ivor Gurney (setting Gerard Manley Hopkins), John Joubert, and John Sanders, the much-missed former organist of Gloucester Cathedral.

The songs that Venables has composed have pitched him to the forefront of English living com­posers. Signum (on SIGCD617) has just issued a CD, Love lives beyond the Tomb, featuring his eight-section cycle Remember This. It is based on some poignant verses penned by Sir Andrew Motion in memory of the Queen Mother (“. . . as now the cof­fin glides away / through London’s traffic-parted day . . .” and “as also must / our own lives turn from dust to dust”).

Venables’s “art-songs” are widely recorded, by peerless performers. Eleven other songs are included here. Five are from his Great War cycle Through These Pale Cold Days. Venables muses long about what texts to set, and how to burrow beneath the words to find “hidden music lying beneath the surface of the words”. He often champions less well-known poets, such as John Addington Symonds or Ernest Dowson.

Here he dramatically invokes Sassoon and Owen, Isaac Rosenberg (my favourite here), and, with the languid, tragic “If You Forget”, the priest-poet Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (Woodbine Willie), who was, coincidentally, pre-war Vicar of St Paul’s, Worcester, where Venables is based. Elsewhere, we light upon Jennifer Andrews (a hint of Christina Rossetti), Robert Nichols, John Clare (compare Venables’s cycle, Invite to Eternity, Signum SIGCD204); plus the “Dymock poet”, John Drinkwater.

The magnificent performances (tenor Allan Clayton, soprano Mary Bevan) carry all with them. I salute the dexterity of the accompanist Graham J. Lloyd, who has also re­­corded this composer’s piano music (Naxos 8.573156) and the superb cycle The Song of the Severn, also featuring a string quartet (Signum SIGCD424). Lloyd’s rich empathy with the composer shines out in his exquisite, intelligent readings here.

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