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A really effective premiere of Ian Venables’ new track cycle, honouring Vaughan Williams – Seen and Heard Worldwide

United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Pageant [4] – Venables, Vaughan Williams: Alessandro Fisher (tenor), William Vann (piano), Navarra Quartet. Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 21.10.2022. (JQ)

Vaughan Williams (arr. Ian Farrington) ‘Lord, Come Away!’ (from 4 Hymns)
Ian Venables Portrait of a Thoughts, Op.54 (world premiere)
Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge

This live performance was the final of 4 consecutive lunchtime occasions which the Oxford Lieder Pageant has promoted in affiliation with BBC Radio 3 underneath the title ‘Vaughan Williams Views’. It included as its centrepiece a brand new track cycle commissioned from Ian Venables by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society to have fun the a hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s delivery.

Fittingly, the brand new work was encased by Vaughan Williams’ personal music however the opening piece was offered in a brand new guise. 4 Hymns was accomplished in 1914 and the work, which is scored for tenor accompanied by both string orchestra or by piano with viola obbligato, was scheduled to obtain its first efficiency – within the orchestral model, I presume – at that 12 months’s Three Choirs Pageant. The outbreak of struggle and subsequent cancellation of the Pageant enforced a postponement and I believe the premiere lastly came about in 1920. In his ebook The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Michael Kennedy refers to a 1925 live performance at which Steuart Wilson, the dedicatee of the 4 Hymns, sang them in a brand new association for piano quintet. Whether or not that association was made by VW himself I have no idea, however I consider that the elements are misplaced. The composer Ian Farrington has made a brand new association for a similar forces and, scorching off the press, we heard one of many Hymns, ‘Lord, Come Away!’ which units phrases by the English divine, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667). That is an impassioned prayer which VW set to suitably matching music. Alessandro Fisher, a previous member of the BBC’s New Technology Artists scheme (2018-21), made a direct impression. His ringing voice was ideally suited to the music and I used to be impressed by the readability each of his diction and his tone, qualities which had been to be a characteristic of the entire live performance. The melismatic vocal line was fervently delivered and the highest register of his voice was a selected delight to listen to. He was supported in a great trend by the Navarra Quartet and William Vann. It appeared to me that Farrington’s reimagining of the accompaniment was fully profitable and I look ahead very a lot to listening to all 4 Hymns in a forthcoming recording by these artists.

On Wenlock Edge (1909) is amongst VW’s best early achievements. His settings of six poems from A E Housman’s celebrated assortment, A Shropshire Lad rank as among the many most impressed of the very many musical responses to that quantity of poetry. As such, the cycle was a great manner by which to conclude this quick collection of Oxford track recitals celebrating Vaughan Williams. Just some days in the past I had attended a efficiency of the cycle given by James Gilchrist (evaluation). It was fascinating to check the 2 performances in my thoughts. Gilchrist, in fact, has been performing these songs for a few years and dropped at them his huge expertise of them. He additionally dropped at the efficiency his robust operatic pedigree in the best way that he used bodily gestures for example and illuminate the music. Fisher is a youthful artist. While he could not but have Gilchrist’s lived expertise of the songs, there was a richly rewarding freshness to his strategy. He was extra restrained in his platform method, letting his facial expressions and voice convey the which means and, on stability, I most well-liked that manner with the music. Moreover, his voice is a bigger instrument than Gilchrist’s and although he used his undoubted vocal energy with smart discretion in a reasonably intimate acoustic, I appreciated very a lot the amplitude which he was capable of deploy at instances, although elsewhere he was extraordinarily delicate in his singing. One factor that each artists had in frequent – although they confirmed it in several methods – was an excellent engagement with the texts and their means to speak Housman’s poetry to the viewers. It could be futile – and presumptuous – to counsel that one efficiency was ‘higher’ that the opposite; I used to be simply glad to have the chance to expertise two contrasting and glorious performances in such a brief house of time.

The instrumentalists introduced an excellent urgency to the opening track, ‘On Wenlock Edge’; the sense of gusts of wind was nearly tangible. Fisher picked up that temper without delay and invested the vocal line and the phrases with comparable urgency. ‘Is my staff ploughing’ is a take a look at of the singer’s means to characterise. Unsurprisingly and appropriately, Fisher characterised each the lifeless man and his good friend as younger males. The pallor of singing and taking part in within the verses that articulate the lifeless man’s questions was ideally judged, as was the extra sturdy nature of the dwelling man’s responses. The concluding stanzas had been fascinating. Within the penultimate verse (‘Is my good friend hearty’) Fisher conveyed to an extent that not many singers do, a way of realisation: the lifeless man has turn out to be conscious of what has turn out to be of his good friend and his sweetheart. Within the final verse of all (‘Sure, lad, I lie straightforward’) one usually will get the sense that the survivor feels responsible – a really legitimate strategy. Right here. although, Fisher’s supply instructed that the good friend simply needed to place the reminiscence of his lifeless good friend behind him: life goes on.

On the coronary heart of On Wenlock Edge lies ‘Bredon Hill’ and VW’s masterly, imaginative musical response to Housman’s story of happiness turning to sorrow. On this efficiency all six musicians labored with notion and talent to unfold a compelling narrative. The instrumentalists have a key function. Not solely do they set the various emotional tones by way of their depiction of several types of bells – marriage ceremony bells, a tolling funeral bell – but additionally, they’ve the duty of creating the temper at key junctures, not least in portray an aural image of wintry chill because the story takes a tragic flip (‘However when the snows at Christmas’). I assumed that Vann and the Navarra Quartet had been extraordinarily efficient in all the things that VW known as upon them to do. Fisher drew us into the story compellingly. He introduced harmless pleasure to the primary 4 stanzas by which all the things goes nicely for the younger man and his sweetheart. Then, because the younger bride dies at far too early an age, Fisher expressed the numb shock and grief. Lastly, there was ringing anguish as he declaimed ‘O noisy bells, be dumb’. This was a riveting account of an excellent narrative track.

I used to be strongly impressed by all elements of this efficiency of On Wenlock Edge. It struck me as a real staff effort; there was no sense of the singer merely being accompanied by the instrumentalists. Everybody had labored exhausting to penetrate these songs and to convey their imaginative and prescient of them to the viewers. The extraordinarily enthusiastic appreciation the performers acquired was completely justified.

The centrepiece of the programme was the primary efficiency of Ian Venables’ new cycle, Portrait of a Thoughts. In a programme be aware, Venables referred to VW as a ‘fixed companion’ all through his life. He went on to elucidate the title: ‘As a tribute to this nice composer, I made a decision to compose a cycle of songs that will emphasise the principal themes that knowledgeable his creativity and thus “paint” a form of musical portrait by which every track displays a distinct facet of his inventive thoughts … I ultimately settled on 5 poems that highlighted the themes I needed to current, particularly: Nature; The Which means of Artwork; Love; Loss of life and Transcendence.’ Those that are accustomed to Venables as a grasp of English track composition will know that he’s wide-ranging and perceptive in his collection of texts. Very appropriately, he selected traces by 5 poets, all of whom had robust hyperlinks with VW in a technique or one other: George Meredith, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Robert Louis Stephenson, Christina Rossetti and Walt Whitman. I perceive that it was Venables’ concept to attain the work for a similar forces as On Wenlock Edge. He has used the mix of voice and piano quintet in three of his earlier track cycles, certainly one of which, Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, Op.36, was additionally for tenor.

The brand new set opens with traces from Meredith’s poem The Lark Ascending. The poem is inscribed within the rating of VW’s celebrated work for violin and orchestra, however Venables sensibly edited the poetry right into a briefer kind however in a manner that preserved its necessities. Maybe inevitably, a solo violin line is outstanding through the instrumental prelude. The music is meditative and slow-moving, step by step constructing in depth. In the course of the track the tempo picks up considerably earlier than returning to the atmosphere of the opening, however this time with extra of a tone of ecstasy; the lark has taken flight. The music on this track was splendidly expressive and the vocal line, superbly delivered by Fisher, featured lengthy, extremely interesting traces. The cycle was thus most auspiciously launched.

Subsequent got here Man Makes Delight his Personal, the poem by Ursula. I discovered from the composer’s programme be aware – which was accessible on-line, so I may solely entry it retrospectively – that she wrote it in 1953, the 12 months earlier than she and Ralph married; it was ‘a loving tribute to her future husband.’ Venables clothed Ursula’s traces in sluggish, considerate and, ultimately, rapt music which exerted a powerful enchantment to me. Equally interesting was Fisher’s singing which communicated each the poem and the music to the viewers with no little feeling. Robert Louis Stephenson’s poems had been set by VW in Songs of Journey. In that occasion, the traveller was on foot; right here Venables selected a distinct mode of locomotion with From a Railway Carriage. I had not encountered this 1885 poem earlier than – in passing, I’m wondering if anybody else has set it to music. Because the composer feedback, Stephenson right here conveys the thrill of a younger youngster viewing the world because it speeds by throughout a prepare trip. Naturally, these phrases required – and received – way more energetic music. The instrumentalists offered a powerful rhythmic impulsion. It was noticeable, although, that even on this quicker-moving music Venables didn’t compromise on his use of lyrical traces within the vocal half.

Subsequent got here Christina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the poet of The Home of Life. Venables chosen Christina’s poem Echo and, as I discovered from his programme be aware, there have been compelling causes for this. It appears – and this was information to me – that VW was impressed by this very poem to compose a Symphonic Rhapsody for Orchestra in 1904, the identical 12 months by which he wrote The Home of Life. That rating is now misplaced. The poem is an expression of aching remorse for a lifeless lover who can now solely be skilled in goals (‘But come to me in goals’). Venables’ musical response to the poetry is acute; the music is sluggish and intense. The accompaniment is commonly spare and the track makes its affect by way of the ardent vocal line, which was compellingly projected by Fisher. One telling little gesture which I famous was a pause that was made by the instrumentalists earlier than the beginning of the final stanza. I don’t know whether or not that is written into the rating or was an interpretative choice; both manner, it was extremely efficient. This deeply expressive track and efficiency impressed me very a lot certainly.

In getting down to honour Ralph Vaughan Williams by way of a collection of texts it might have been not possible for Ian Venables to miss the claims of Walt Whitman. It appeared fully becoming that the concluding track ought to be A Clear Midnight. As Venables put it, in feedback I learn later, ‘For me, the quick lyric A Clear Midnight captures the essence of RVW’s non secular convictions and brings the cycle full circle: the liberty of the human spirit symbolised by the lark’s ascent within the first track, is now mirrored by Whitman’s religion within the Soul’s transcendence.’  As I listened, I jotted down my feeling that this track was a sluggish, deeply expressive celebration of the inventive bond between VW and Whitman. But once more, we heard a splendidly communicative vocal line, made all of the extra communicative by the best way Fisher delivered it. When the expressive prospects of singing had been absolutely explored, Venables handed over to the instrumentalists who introduced each track and cycle to a really satisfying conclusion in a rapt, emotional coda.

These 5 songs represent a really effective and eloquent tribute to VW. Venables has achieved a well-deserved popularity as a pre-eminent composer of English track and he proved to be, as I had anticipated, a great alternative for this Ralph Vaughan Williams Society fee. The efficiency and the composer acquired a really heat reception from the viewers.  If I’ve a criticism of Portrait of a Thoughts – and it’s a gentle one – I’d have appreciated to listen to one other track in a fast tempo: 4 of the 5 are at sluggish or average velocity. Nonetheless, that will have meant an additional track as a result of I’d not willingly forego any of the 5, and I do settle for {that a} sixth track would have upset the structural design of the work since Ian Venables had perceptively recognized 5 elements of VW that he wished for example. I doubt if the composer may have wished for a greater premiere. All six performers provided us a collective expertise that was dedicated, perceptive and extremely expert. I’m impatient to listen to these songs once more, although I intentionally haven’t sought to listen to them once more earlier than penning this evaluation, in order that I can report right here – for higher or worse – my first impressions.

The live performance was broadcast reside on BBC Radio 3 which implies that anybody with entry to BBC Sounds will have the ability to hear it for the following thirty days. Even higher information is that Albion Information plan to report all of the music we heard, together with Ian Farrington’s preparations of the remaining three of the 4 Hymns. The recording, by in the present day’s performers, is scheduled to be made subsequent month with a deliberate launch within the first half of 2023.

Ian Venables’ notes on Portrait of a Thoughts will be learn right here.

John Quinn



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