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Ian VENABLES (b. 1955)
Complete Works for Piano Solo
Caprice, Op. 35 (2001) [8:37]
The Stourhead Follies: Four Romantic Impressions, Op. 4 (1984) [18:52]
Three Short Pieces, Op. 5 (1986) [6:11]
Impromptu: The Nightingale and The Rose, Op. 8 (1996) [8:23]
Portrait of Janis, Op. 9 (2000) [6:21]
Sonata: In Memoriam DSCH, Op. 1 (1975) [21:44]
Graham J. Lloyd (piano)
rec. 23-24 October 2012, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouthshire.
NAXOS 8.573156 [70:10]
Earlier this year I reviewed a couple of discs devoted to the music of Ian Venables. I’ve also heard and enjoyed some of his music in concert (review ~~ review). However, to date most of my experience of his output has been confined to his songs, although his String Quartet was included on the Signum Classics disc, At Midnight. This Naxos disc, therefore, presented a welcome opportunity to expand my knowledge of his works. That said, most if not all of the Venables songs that I’ve heard have involved piano accompaniment so from that listening I’ve learnt that Ian Venables writes well for the piano.
His full output of solo piano pieces fits neatly onto one CD and covers a period of some twenty-six years. Some composers might have worked up to a full-blown sonata through a series of shorter pieces but with Ian Venables the reverse is true: his Piano Sonata constitutes his Op 1 and it’s the earliest piece in Graham Lloyd’s recital. As the title implies, it was written as a tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich following his death. We learn from Ian Flint’s very useful notes that the Soviet master was an important influence on Venables, at least at that time in his career. At some stage - I know not when - Venables studied with John Joubert; is it a coincidence, I wonder, that Shostakovich is a composer that Joubert also much admired and whose influence can be heard, for example, in Joubert’s Second String Quartet, Op 91, which was composed two years after the Venables sonata?
The Piano Sonata, which was composed when Venables was twenty, is cast in three movements and it’s an impressive composition. The DSCH motif that figured in a number of Shostakovich’s own works is used, very effectively, by Venables. Indeed, it informs the broad chordal motif that we hear right at the start of the work. The first movement includes a good deal of thoughtful music in slow or moderate tempi though from time to time a short propulsive allegro passage is interposed. The DSCH motif hovers fairly consistently, though often only in the background; however, the motif is in no way a straitjacket but rather a springboard for Venables’ own invention as, for instance, in the two-part writing between 5:17 and 6:37. The motif can also be discerned in the very short central movement, an Allegro scherzando. This is a very effective homage to Shostakovich’s sardonic scherzo style and the music is pithy and dexterous. Finally comes a movement marked Molto adagio ed espressivo. Proceeding from a desolate opening, the textures are often spare and I sense a mood of resignation. Venables allows the music to take its time in building. At 3:17 a three-voice fugue, again spare in texture at first, paves the way for more powerful music and eventually the emotional climax of the movement - and, surely, of the whole work - is achieved before the frosty desolation of the opening returns. The DSCH motif has the last word. You won’t find the searing intensity or fist-shaking that characterised so much of the Soviet master’s output; rather, the influence of his music has been absorbed, digested and then a suitable covering of English restraint has been added for good measure. This is, as I said, an impressive work and so far as I can judge - the piece was new to me - Graham Lloyd’s performance is equally impressive.
If I say that the remaining music on the disc is, for the most part, lighter in tone than the sonata I don’t mean to imply that it lacks depth. Indeed, I was struck by the fact that the Caprice, Op. 35 is not as light hearted as its title might suggest. True, it opens and closes with music that displays a lightness of touch and of spirit. However, there’s an extended central section (3:10 - 6:11) which is more serious in tone and that serious music is revisited briefly before the end. However, don’t let me give the impression that because there’s a serious side to the Caprice it’s not an attractive work; such is most certainly not the case.
The Stourhead Follies also contains very attractive music. This is a set of four pieces inspired by a visit that Venables paid in 1984 to Stourhead House and Gardens in Wiltshire. This is an eighteenth-century country house now owned by The National Trust and it’s worth taking a look at the Stourhead website and especially the garden section because there you’ll see some images which give a flavour of what inspired Venables. As the subtitle indicates, the musical language is essentially Romantic. Ian Flint quite rightly points out the influence of Ravel and Rachmaninov in the first piece, Temple to Apollo and I detect Rachmaninov in the second piece also. This is Palladio’s Bridge and it’s pensive and Romantic in character. It has a short central climax from which it retreats, bridge-like, to the pensive mood with which the piece began. Three of the four pieces are in slow or moderate tempi so it’s good to have a sprightly short third movement, Pantheon. This is rhythmically vigorous but this vigour doesn’t preclude delicacy. Perhaps the most remarkable music is contained in the concluding piece, The Grotto. Here the mood is almost consistently one of meditative stillness. Since I’ve never been to Stourhead I haven’t seen the view which inspired this piece but I wonder if a water garden is somewhere in the landscape since that is suggested to me by the music. Once again I hear echoes of Ravel - I hope I’m right in that - and also, perhaps of Fauré. This is wonderfully atmospheric music and it’s performed with great sensitivity by Graham Lloyd.
The rest of the disc includes a highly programmatic piece, The Nightingale and The Rose, which is after the story by Oscar Wilde. Portrait of Janis is a gently affectionate recollection of friendships while the Three Short Pieces are delightful miniatures for children. Of these I particularly enjoyed the second, Dance of the Teddy Bears with its affectionate nod to The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.
There’s some highly accomplished music here and it’s all rewarding and consistently enjoyable. Those who warm to expressive, tonal, accessible and communicative music will find much to enjoy with this disc. It’s hard to imagine that the music could have received better advocacy than Graham Lloyd’s and he’s been sympathetically recorded in the Wyastone Concert Hall. One final thought. In the notes we read that Ian Venables described his Caprice, Op. 35 as his “final essay for the piano”. Having enjoyed what I’ve heard on this disc I hope he might reconsider that stance.
John Quinn   

And another review ...

I first tried to write about the works of English composer Ian Venables more than a decade ago during the early years of MusicWeb International (review). Since then other reviewers have written with greater acuity but similar enthusiasm about Venables’ music.
My regard for his music has not faded with hearing this CD. My judgements and generalisations and above all my welcome for this life-benefiting music are confirmed.
The 2001 Caprice - written for Phillip Dyson - belongs squarely and with high distinction among the finer works of British piano music. Its world is tonal, melancholy and pastoral with a lineage traceable back to Finzi, Gurney and Howells. From sixteen years before the Caprice come the four Stourhead Follies. They were written after a visit to Stourhead House and Gardens in Wiltshire. The music is gentle but not insipid, confident without any hint of braggadoccio. It is shot through with bell sounds both assertive and in their final decay into silence. There's a vigorous folk-dance quality to the third of these four "Romantic Impressions". Strangely enough Venables in this work had me thinking of Mompou's meditative piano solos and of Rodrigo at his most becalmed.
The Three Short Pieces comprise a sprightly folksy Caprice, an expectedly innocent and slightly drowsy Dance of the Teddy Bears and a mistily somnolent Folk-Tune that reminded me of the similarly slow-pulsed Folk-Tune by Eugene Goossens.
The Nightingale and the Rose is based on the heartbreaking Wilde story of the same name. It began life as music for a children's ballet. Venables has a gift for such understated yet emotional material and this is reflected with fidelity in this Impromptu.
Portrait of Janis is a further emotionally eloquent piece, this time written in 2000 and premiered in California. The music inhabits, in part, the same world as the instrumental lines in RVW's song Bredon Hill. I see that amongst the funders for this fine disc are the RVW and John Ireland trusts.
The final entry is also both the oldest (1976) and the longest. It is his Op. 1 sonata In Memoriam DSCH. This is a three movement piece in which two ten minute Molto adagios frame a sly yet happily spiky Allegro scherzando. The outer movements radiate a movingly poignant and almost reverential dignity. The latter captures the spirit of a very slowly yet freely paced funeral march. Given its subject and its date it is no surprise that the Sonata stands out in this company - not typical Venables but part of his development and touching and potent in its own right.
Graham J Lloyd is a great advocate for this subtle, accessible and emotionally eloquent music.
The sound is unobtrusively supportive. The notes by Ian Flint get the message across without resort to undue technicality while providing those biographical linkages we all like to have at hand. 
Rob Barnett 

Previous review: John France