Ian Venables: Requiem; Howells: Anthems for Choir and Orchestra. © 2022 Delphian Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Generally Moving and Serenely Consoling

GERALD FENECH is impressed by choral music of Herbert Howells and Ian Venables

'... a highly attractive choral disc, refreshingly performed and sumptuously recorded ...'


Herbert Howells (1892-1983), one of England's greatest twentieth century composers, saw himself in a long tradition of English composers who found their initial love of both music and poetry in the Anglican Church, and in writing for that Church he was continuing the work of his teacher Sir Charles Stanford, who was very proud of his pupil. Indeed, Howells was a boy prodigy, and he was not only a fast learner but also a brilliant natural talent, whose musical gifts became apparent at a very early age. Ivor Gurney was another composer who played a vital part in Howells' career, and their close friendship spurned the latter towards a lifelong passion for setting words to music.

Many have pointed to Howells' period during the Second World War (from October 1944) and the influence of Eric Milner-White, the Dean of King's College, that encouraged the composer to set sacred words to music. But really, it was in years before this that Howells forged a unique style with Hymnus Paradisi and the four Anthems which formed the basis of his musical language for the rest of his career.

Hymnus Paradisi was the result of the greatest tragedy that befell Howells during his long life - ninety years. In 1935 his son Michael, aged nine, contracted polio and died within three days. The composer was devastated and never really recovered. Indeed, for a long span of time Howells would be found in church praying, and it took great efforts to drag him out. Another big blow was the bombing of his home in Barnes, London, in December 1940. These two catastrophies had a profound effect on Howells' outlook to life, and he became most conscious of the fragility of his own mortality.

With the beginning of 1941 the composer embarked on a period of frenzied composition, and the anthems O pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Like as the heart desireth the water brooks date from this period. These two pieces form part of a set of anthems that Howells wrote in the aftermath of those two tragedies, and these works, as expected, concentrate on fear, violence, pain, vengeance and retribution.

Listen — Howells: O pray for the peace of Jerusalem
(DCD34252 track 1, 0:02-0:50) ℗ 2022 Delphian Records Ltd :

The House of the Mind came much later, in 1954, and the subject of this anthem is totally different to the other two. Indeed, the piece implores the reader to look inward for the presence of God.

Listen — Howells: The House of the Mind
(DCD34252 track 3, 0:01-0:50) ℗ 2022 Delphian Records Ltd :

Ian Venables was born in Liverpool in 1955 and was educated at Liverpool Collegiate Grammar School. He studied music with, among others, Richard Arnell and John Joubert at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. His compositions encompass many genres, but in particular, he has been instrumental in making people conscious of the importance of the English art song. Described as 'one of the finest song composers of his generation', he has written over eighty works in this genre, which includes eight song cycles. Venables also wrote songs for solo voice and piano, and this repertoire has been performed by national and internationally acclaimed artists.

His many chamber works include the Piano Quintet, Op 24 (1995) and the String Quartet, Op 32 (1998), as well as smaller pieces for solo instruments and piano. Venables also embraced the choral genre, of which two pieces are on this recording: the renowned Requiem, Op 48 and O God be merciful, Op 51. The composer is also an expert on the nineteenth century poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds, setting five of his poems for voice and piano, and also writing an essay for the book John Addington Symonds: Culture and the Demon Desire. Venables is also President of the Arthur Bliss Society, a Vice-President of the Gloucester Music Society and chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society.

Commissioned by Bryce and Cynthia Somerville in memory of their parents, the Requiem was started in 2017 and completed in 2018. Premiered on 2 July 2019, the piece remains one of Venables' most important compositions, and was conceived mainly for liturgical use. Sung in the traditional Latin, the score does not really break new ground. Indeed, there are echoes of Duruflé, but the music is generally moving and serenely consoling, and there is a deeply felt invitation to contemplation. Being a composer of song, Venables certainly knows how to etch out a melody that goes straight to the heart. The original version was written for organ accompaniment, but on this recording a new orchestral version has been specially prepared.

Listen — Venables: Libera me (Requiem)
(DCD34252 track 10, 0:00-0:59) ℗ 2022 Delphian Records Ltd :

The programme is completed with two other Venables works: the eloquent Rhapsody in Memoriam Herbert Howells for organ solo and the soulful anthem God be Merciful.

Listen — Venables: God be Merciful
(DCD34252 track 12, 2:52-3:47) ℗ 2022 Delphian Records Ltd :

This is a highly attractive choral disc, refreshingly performed and sumptuously recorded by the Choir of Merton College, Oxford conducted by Benjamin Nicholas, which should be cause for closer investigation.

Copyright © 23 November 2022 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta








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