Ian Venables’ masterly and moving Requiem performed with conviction at the Elgar Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar Festival 2023 – Still, Elgar, Michael Berkeley, Venables: Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir, St Cecilia Singers, Jonathan Hope (organ), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods and Stephen Shellard (conductors). Great Malvern Priory, Malvern, 1.6.2023. (JQ)

William Grant StillSummerland (1935)
ElgarMina (1933)
Michael BerkeleyVisions of Piers Plowman
Elgar – Selections from Arthur (1923)
Ian Venables – Requiem (2018)

The Elgar Festival has been an annual event for several years now, centring on an enlightened collaboration between the City of Worcester and the English Symphony Orchestra. Spread over several days (this year from 30 May to 4 June) the Festival offers a wide selection of events with the music of Worcester’s most celebrated musical figure at its core. However, although Elgar’s music dominates, other composers are by no means overlooked. This concert took place in the fine setting of Great Malvern Priory, a church which can trace its history back over more than 900 years.

Kenneth Woods © Michael Whitefoot

The items in the first half were conducted by Kenneth Woods, the ESO’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor since 2013. He began the concert with two miniatures. First came Summerland by his fellow-American, William Grant Still. I learned from the programme note that this originally formed part of a piano suite entitled Three Visions. It is a tranquil little piece and I liked the pastel colours of the scoring, which came through nicely, thanks to the transparency of textures that Woods secured. The music proceeded lightly and fluently; it was a very pleasing opener to the programme. Elgar’s Mina, which followed, was his last completed orchestral composition; it was named after his beloved Cairn terrier dog. Touchingly, the programme note reminded me that the first performance occurred when Lawrence Collingwood and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded the piece for HMV in early February 1934. Elgar was far too ill to attend the session, but a few days later he was able to hear and critique the record as he lay on his deathbed: he died eight days later. Introducing the performance, Kenneth Woods expressed his admiration for Elgar as a miniaturist, describing him as ‘a master of casting spells’. As I listened to this expertly judged, affectionate performance, I reflected that there isn’t a wasted note in Mina; the craftsmanship is impeccable and this little piece is founded on memorable melodic material.

This year the Elgar Festival is celebrating the 75th birthday of Michael Berkeley. Several of his works – and a couple by his father, Lennox – will be performed. The composer was present to hear Wood and the ESO play Visions of Piers Plowman. This short, three-movement suite derived from incidental music which Berkeley wrote in the early 1980s for a BBC Radio 3 series derived from the epic medieval poem by William Langland. So far as I could tell – I didn’t have particularly good visibility of the orchestra from my seat – the scoring is for horns, strings, piano and percussion. Though the instrumental forces may be somewhat limited Berkeley draws a wide range of colours from the orchestra. In the short first movement, ‘Strife’, the music lived up to its title. ‘The Vision’ was the most substantial movement. At first it seemed to me that the individual musical lines were questing in nature. Later on, there appeared to be more of a spirit of certainty; the music had more warmth and tranquillity. Finally, in ‘Piers’ Theme’ there was nobility and a sense of manly resolve to the music. I thought the performance was very successful.

The concert took place on the evening before Elgar’s birthday so it was fitting that the first half should close with his music. Elgar’s music for Arthur is not frequently performed, I believe. I have only heard it in a 2014 recording of the complete incidental music (review). In brief, the music was written in 1923 for a production of the verse play about King Arthur, written in 1919 by Laurence Binyon (whose poetry Elgar set so memorably in The Spirit of England). I believe that the play, utilising Elgar’s music, had a short run in London in March 1923 and then both play and music seem to have been largely forgotten. A 23-minute suite compiled from the incidental music was recorded in 1973 by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta conducted by George Hurst, but I have never heard that recording and I don’t know exactly what music Hurst recorded. The full score was revived at the 2012 English Music Festival when it was played by the Orchestra of St Paul’s and Ben Palmer in an edition compiled by Palmer. The full score, which was written, out of necessity, for a theatre pit band, contains 25 numbers, many of them very short. It seems to me, therefore, that a suite containing the key material is a much more satisfactory prospect for today’s listeners. What we heard here was a six-movement suite which, I later learned, used Elgar’s original theatre scoring, as used in the Ben Palmer edition, but with the addition of a few additional string players. The beefing up of the string section was, I think, a very sensible decision given the resonant acoustic of Great Malvern Priory.

An important point of interest in this score is that Elgar later took two themes and recycled then into the sketches for his Third Symphony, which he left incomplete at his death and which were subsequently so memorably expanded into a performing version by Anthony Payne. One is a small motif – I would call it a ‘chattering’ theme – that we hear in the third movement of the suite (‘The Banqueting Hall at Westminster’); this found its way into what became, in Payne’s hands, the second movement of the symphony. Even more consequential is a wonderful, typically noble theme which Payne used in his finale. This very Elgarian tune crops up in the first movement of the suite (‘The King and Sir Bedivere’) and, to even greater effect, in the concluding movement ‘Arthur’s Passage to Avalon’. I can’t be sure, but I strongly suspect that this fine theme must have been devised by Elgar with King Arthur himself in mind. Before the performance Kenneth Woods commented on what we were about to hear and gave short shrift to the notion that Elgar’s creative fires were extinguished by 1923, following the death of his wife, Alice. Broadly, I would agree, though unsurprisingly composition was probably more difficult for him by then. That said, the conviction with which the music was presented certainly supported Woods’ view.

Apart from the noble theme referenced above, I was also struck on more than once occasion by the extent to which a chivalric incident in the play inspired Elgar to hark back to the glory days of works such as Falstaff. That was especially true in some passages of brilliance in ‘The King and Sir Bedivere’ and also in ‘The Banqueting Hall at Westminster’, where we heard some moments which displayed the swagger of Elgar in his pomp. The fifth movement (‘Battle Scene’) was exciting, too. The most satisfying music, I felt, came at the end in ‘Arthur’s Passage to Avalon’. This opened with what sounded to me like a rather mysterious little march before moving into a quiet elegy. Then, as the movement drew to a close, what I have termed the ‘Arthur’ theme took over. Here, the Elgarian nobility was conveyed with great expressiveness by Woods and his orchestra. Kenneth Woods and the ESO made a fine case for this neglected lateish Elgar work, and I was glad that there had been this chance to hear it live.

Ian Venables composed his Requiem in 2018 and I first heard it, in a liturgical context, towards the end of that year. At that stage, two movements were yet to be completed but even so, I was seriously impressed by what I heard (review). A very fine recording of the work in its original version with organ accompaniment was subsequently made by Adrian Partington and the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral; tonight’s organist, Jonathan Hope, played the organ for that recording (review). Subsequently, Ian Venables made an orchestral version of the score and an equally excellent recording of the work in that form by Benjamin Nicholas and the Choir of Merton College, Oxford was released just last year. It was that version which we heard this evening. I should say at once that I don’t believe that the orchestral version is intended to supplant the organ version; both are equally valid and, indeed complement each other. This was the first occasion on which I have been able to experience the Requiem in live performance in its orchestral dress.

Ian Venables’ scoring requires quite modest forces: flute, oboe, clarinet, three trumpets, harp, timpani, strings and organ. To perform it, two local chamber choirs composed of highly proficient amateur singers came together: Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir and the St Cecilia Singers from Gloucester. Stephen Shellard, the conductor of the Worcester choir directed the performance. In orchestrating the work Ian Venables retained a very important role for the organ; this was played on this occasion by Jonathan Hope, Assistant Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral, who is also the conductor of the St Cecilia Singers.

What I now heard reinforced the view I have held since first hearing the piece: the Venables Requiem is one of the most significant recent English choral compositions and a work of great emotional depth which makes a very direct connection with performers and audiences. You can detect (beneficial) influences of other composers – including Hebert Howells – and other Requiems – those of Fauré and, even more so, Duruflé spring readily to mind. That said, Venables is very much his own man. The harmonic language is very beautiful and sets the melodies in a memorable context. As for the melodic lines of the work, they evidence time and again the work of a composer who is a master word-setter in his songs.

I admired the performance very much. I thought Stephen Shellard conducted the score with evident belief – which he communicated to the performers – and with great understanding. On a couple of occasions, I noted that his tempi seemed to be slightly faster than is marked in the score. One was at the very opening; by adopting a slightly faster speed I thought Shellard injected a welcome degree of flow into the music. Later, in the seventh movement, ‘Libera me’, there is a passage where the basses begin an ominous canon (‘Dies irae’). Again, Shellard took this slightly faster than I have previously heard it but, once again, I thought his tempo selection worked very well, in this instance enabling the singers to inject real bite and momentum into the music. The combined choirs sang very well. They brought out the drama in episodes such as the ‘Libera me’ – the most dramatic movement in the work – and in the ‘Offertorium’. Elsewhere, they were just as alive to the many passages of true beauty in the score, not least in the ‘Pie Jesu’; here, the very exposed soprano solo was very well sung by Katherine Lawson, a member of the St Cecilia Singers. There were a few occasions when I thought that perhaps the choir’s tuning wasn’t absolutely accurate, but these were minor blemishes which mattered far less than the great commitment evidenced by the singers. I strongly suspect that neither choir has previously performed the work; I had the sense of fresh discovery and a determination to project the music as eloquently as possible.

The orchestral contribution deserves special mention. Hearing the work live made me appreciate, to a degree not even evident in the excellent Merton College recording, just how effective is Venables’ orchestration in adding extra colours. A handful of examples will suffice. The timpani powerfully reinforced the dramatic moments in the score; I loved the poignant oboe line at the start of the concluding ‘Lux aeterna’; earlier, the high woodwind and harp added flashes of colour to the lovely Sanctus; the trumpets brought brilliance to episodes such as the ‘Hosanna’ in the Sanctus and in the closing pages of the ‘Lux aeterna’. The members of the ESO gave a highly accomplished account of the orchestral side of the score and made me appreciate just how much the presence of instruments adds to this wonderful score.

At the end of the performance the composer, who was evidently delighted by what he had heard, was received with notable warmth by the audience. I hope the audience’s reaction and the conviction with which his music was performed will encourage him to compose more choral pieces to set beside this masterly and moving Requiem in his compositional output.

John Quinn  

For more details of the Elgar Festival 2023 visit the Festival website.

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