At Midnight: Songs and Chamber Music by Ian Venables


Described as “one of the finest song composers of his generation”, Ian Venables’ music for voice and string quartet draws on a wealth of literary and musical sources, in particular from the 19th Century romantic tradition. Performances on this disc come from British tenor Andrew Kennedy and the award winning Dante Quartet.

This release follows the 2008 release On Wenlock Edge with performances by Andrew Kennedy, the Dante Quartet and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips of works by Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney and Ian Venables:

"Venables’ songs are sharply responsive to the weight and meaning of every word, and his style … around Kennedy’s voice like a glove … The tenor handles the texts superbly, making every word perfectly clear" The Guardian




What people are saying

“Kennedy’s plangent tone fits ideally the predominant mood of melancholy … The string quartet confirms Venables’ originality: the gritty vitality of the outer movements straddling an adagio that mingles wit with wistful romanticism”  Recording of the Fortnight, Classical Music Magazine

“… stylish and graceful melodic invention, vividly realised in Andrew Kennedy’s plangent tenor and the keenly judged playing of the Dantes.” The Observer, August 2010

“…in his writing for strings, the instruments sing – one could almost fancy they had words written into their parts.The Gramophone, September 2010

"This is a distinguished and eloquent set of songs." Musicbweb International, April 2013

Andrew Kennedy
Dante Quartet

Release date:26th Apr 2010
Order code:SIGCD204
Barcode: 635212020425

(Part of a comparative review)

In May I am planning to review a concert in Malvern for Seen and Heard which will include the première of a new cycle of songs by Ian Venables, The Song of the Severn, for baritone, piano and string quartet (details). In preparation for that event I’ve been listening to some more of his music. 

These two CDs, which were recorded within a few months of each other, feature the tenor Andrew Kennedy and both display Ian Venables’ talents as a songwriter. I don’t know what it is about English music that so often announces itself to the listener as English, even if, as here, the music is neither modal nor inspired by English folk song. Venables’ music does seem to me to breathe a definite air of Englishness, even when he is not setting texts by English writers. However, I noted with some interest that Ionian Song, the first of the Op. 38 set, is dedicated to the great American composer, Ned Rorem. He is one of the finest of twentieth-century art song composers – and, happily, continues to compose songs in the twenty-first century – and after reading that dedication I hope I wasn’t being suggestible in hearing resonances of Rorem’s music – I wouldn’t put it more strongly than that. Perhaps my thinking is influenced by two traits that these two composers have in common: a genuine melodic gift and a discerning eye for suitable literary texts to set to music. 


That point is emphasised in the Signum booklet where the note by Graham J. Lloyd quotes Stephen Banfield’s view that Ian Venables possesses “a genius for melancholy”; that is on display in much of the music on this disc. The cycle Invite, to Eternity is an impressive collection of four settings of poems by John Clare (1793-1864) for tenor and string quartet. Venables’ instinctive ability to write effectively and expressively for the human voice will not be doubted by anyone who has listened to the Naxos CD. Here his affinity for the string quartet is shown to be just as strong. Perhaps it’s the inclusion of strings in the scoring but I thought that in the opening song there was more than a whiff of the – wholly beneficial – influence of Finzi, most markedly at the harmonic resolution on the words “Love so divine”. The second song, which gives the cycle its title, starts innocently enough, as does Clare’s poem, but the burden of the words soon becomes more poignant, even dark, and the hue of Venables’ music darkens in sympathy with the words. The short third song is scherzo-like after which the most extensive song, I am, involves, in Graham Lloyd’s words, “desolate harmonic language”. There’s even greater depth here than in the other songs. It’s a deeply introspective setting, often aching in its emotional response to Clare’s verses. At the very end, in the last three lines, the poet’s mood seems more accepting but Venables’ music remains unsettled. This is a distinguished and eloquent set of songs. 

It will be seen that there is an overlap with the Naxos disc in that Signum have included four of the same songs. However, here they are presented in arrangements by Graham J. Lloyd in which a string quartet is substituted for the original piano in the accompaniment. One presumes that these arrangements have the composer’s full approval and to my ears they are extremely successful. Lloyd’s skilful arrangements don’t supplant the piano originals; rather, they complement and expand the keyboard accompaniments. Lloyd says that he has taken advantage of the “many different colours and sonorities available from a string quartet”. He also believes the arrangements “enhanced the overall mood and emotional power of each song.” I agree but I’d add that he’s brought to the selected songs the sustaining capabilities of string instruments and their singing character. I don’t think it’s an accident that in two of the songs, A Kiss and At Midnight, the performances on the Signum disc are quite significantly more expansive than on the Naxos recordings. There’s an extra depth of emotional response in the Signum performances, fine though the Naxos versions are. All four arrangements work very well indeed though the piano versions remain equally valid and important. 

The String Quartet is a most accomplished piece, cast in three movements. The first opens with tense, arresting music which is strongly rhythmical but soon (at 1:10) broadens into something slower and more lyrical, albeit there’s no reduction in tension. This passage achieves a big climax before, at 4:12, great vigour and thrust return. The remainder of the movement is powerful and taut. There follows a short movement, lasting less than three minutes in this performance, which is light in texture and essentially genial in character. This provides a fine foil to the preceding movement and, as we shall see, a very necessary interlude before the rigours of the third movement. 

This final movement, which plays for just over 11 minutes, is longer than the previous two movements combined. It’s an impressive composition and begins with slow music in which the cello is to the fore. To my ears the music is dark and not a little troubled; the tonality is far from certain yet there’s still a grave beauty to what we hear. There follows (at 2:37) an unsettled section in which there’s a good deal of pizzicato writing. The argument then unfolds through a number of passages, all described in the very helpful note. The music reflects a variety of moods; there’s an undoubted seriousness of purpose at its heart yet one senses a positive tone is gradually being asserted. It’s an ambitious movement and I’m still not sure how it all fits together – how the fugal episode fits in, for example – but I hasten to add that this comment reflects the fact that I need to get to know the music better; it’s certainly not intended as a criticism of the compositional skill. This is certainly a movement – and a work – that will repay careful listening. The quartet is also one that clearly makes significant demands on the players, though these are more than met by the Dante Quartet.  

The standard of performance on both discs is uniformly high with Andrew Kennedy in particular proving to be an expressive and committed advocate for Ian Venables’ songs. Both discs present the music in excellent sound and Graham J Lloyd provides notes to match to accompany both releases. Signum provide texts for all the songs, Naxos for most of theirs, except for a few that set copyright texts. 

If you are an admirer of Ian Venables’ music you will want both discs but for collectors who are coming new to his art in which disc should you invest? The Naxos release enjoys a price advantage and will appeal to anyone whose primary interest lies in songs. However, the Signum programme offers a wider perspective on the composer’s output. Pressed to choose one I’d opt for the Signum disc on account of its greater musical range. However, I strongly suspect that anyone buying one disc will soon join me in adding the other to their collection.   


Musicweb International, John Quinn

Musicweb International, John Quinn

Recording of the Fortnight, ****
Classical Music Magazine, 19th June 2010

As the liner note suggests, lan Venables’ art songs are firmly in the English lyrical tradition, stretching – and absorbing influences – from Parry to Britten, the music a delicate backdrop to the words. Kennedy’s plangent tone fits ideally the predominant mood of melancholy, while lightening for Flying Crooked and The Hippo. The string quartet confirms Venables’ originality: the gritty vitality of the outer movements straddling an adagio that mingles wit with wistful romanticism.

Phillip Sommerich

MusicWeb-International, August 2010

Ian Venables’ works are written in the trajectory of mainstream British classical music over the past hundred years. Yet this is not to suggest that he lacks his own voice or that he is in any way writing a pastiche of earlier generations – he is most definitely not. However, the key feature of Venables’ music is an approachability often denied to more eclectic composers who have ignored or even despised their musical heritage. None of his compositions would repel the listener, although not all are immediately rewarding – some have to be worked at to gain an understanding and to develop an emotional response.

String Quartets have long been an important part of British musical composition. Frank Bridge produced four quartets, John Blackwood McEwen wrote some nineteen examples of this form, with Elizabeth Maconchy not far behind with thirteen. Nevertheless, the core repertoire would appear to be Benjamin Britten’s three mature quartets alongside the five by Michael Tippett.

However, I believe that it is largely to the Continent that the listener needs to look for the most obvious precursors to this present quartet. In spite of the fact that Venables has eschewed serialism and ‘folk music’ there is much in these pages that nods to Alban Berg and possibly Bela Bartók. The emotional range of Venables’ work is wide – from naked aggression and despair through humour to serenity and hope. For a model nearer home the stylistic diversity of Frank Bridge’s quartets may be of considerable relevance.

The String Quartet was composed in 1998 as a result of a commission from the Droitwich Concert Club as a part of their 25th Anniversary celebrations. The first performance was given by the Duke String Quartet. The work is dedicated ‘with permission’ to Sir Michael Tippett.

Anyone imagining that Ian Venables’ String Quartet is a kind of English idyll will be largely disappointed: however, someone approaching this work with an open mind will be challenged and ultimately moved. The programme notes suggest that this quartet is at times ‘gritty,’ ‘harsh’ and ‘uncompromising in tone’ yet, this is not the full story, as we shall see.

The opening movement has a strong contrast between the ‘granitic ostinato’ and a much more lyrical passage. This is balanced against a song-like melody and a ‘maelstrom’ that forms a major part of this movement’s material. The concluding bars succeed in restoring a degree of sanity to the proceedings. The ‘allegretto scherzando’ comes as a relief after the concerns of the first movement. If I am honest, it is music that could have been written at any time over the past 75 years – and is none the worse for that. The vitality and energy is never in doubt and strikes a fine balance between playfulness and something just that little bit more sinister.

The heart of this quartet is undoubtedly the ‘adagio’ sections of the final movement. This is beautiful material that is interrupted by more dynamic events including a central fugue and a deeply lyrical melody that is summation of much that has transpired. The movement and the work close with a splendid coda which finally lifts the largely melancholic, even valedictory mood to one of hope and even optimism.

The song-cycle Invite, to Eternity Op.31 was composed in 1997 and was conceived for tenor and string quartet. Graham Lloyd suggests that this better reflected the kaleidoscopic moods, images and nuances of John Clare’s (1793- 1864) poetry. With this song-cycle the listener is back on familiar Venables territory – the balance of melancholy with flashes of optimism and deep insight. This is music that perfectly matches the text.

The song-cycle opens with a lengthy prelude for the string quartet (vide Finzi’s Dies Natalis) before the singer begins his proceedings Born Upon an Angel’s Breast with a recitative that certainly does have echoes of the elder composer. The message of the poem is the dichotomy between love as ‘sin and death’ and as the ‘only saviour of the soul.’

The intensity of the cycle is increased with the second song, the eponymous An Invite, to Eternity. However, the opening sentence would appear to be light- hearted and flirtatious – ‘Wilt thou go with me sweet maid …?’ Yet this poem is not so much about a summer’s ramble in the countryside as a Bunyan- like ‘progress’ through a landscape where ‘the path has lost its way’ and where ‘life will fade like visioned dreams’. Venables pushes the music here into ‘angular’ and often dissonant moods – without ever losing the inherent lyricism.

Fortunately, the composer chooses to lighten the proceedings with the ‘scherzo’ – ‘Evening Bells’. This is pure rural idyll – although of the finest quality. Gone is the oppressive mood of the previous songs, to be replaced with lines such as ‘Zephyrs breathing once again/Once again the zephyr swells/ Still I lie upon the plain/ Entranc’d to hear the evening bells …’ It is quicksilver music that is over almost as soon as it starts. However, it leads the listener’s mind and mood towards the bleak sound-world of the poet’s best known poem – the searching ‘I am’. This was John Clare’s last offering to the literary world and is heartbreaking. Yet, even in these bleak verses there are glimmers of hope and even resignation – for example the poet’s wish for a place ‘where man never trod’ and there to ‘abide with my Creator, God/And sleep as I in childhood, sweetly slept’. It is a synthesis of music and words that will long remain in the listener’s mind: it is heart-breaking and must bring a tear to even the hardest of hearts (to mix a metaphor).

The first performance of Invite, to Eternity was given in November 1997, at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hall, Worcester with the tenor Kevin McLean Mair and the Bochmann String Quartet.

This song-cycle is surely one of the ‘great’ essays in this form. The use of the string quartet instead of the piano was, in my opinion, a touch of genius. But, be warned, this is depressing stuff: I am off for a cup of tea and a seat in the summer sunshine in my garden to watch the dunnocks and nuthatch and to generally cheer up!

Graham Lloyd arranged four of Ian Venables’ songs for tenor and string quartet – the work is simply called ‘Four Songs for String Quartet’ and appears to be regarded as a cycle to be played in order rather than a group of individual songs to be chosen at random. They were originally written over a period of years and are culled from a number of song-cycles where the accompaniment was the piano. Lloyd feels that the use of the string quartet enhances the mood of the songs, although the originals are also perfectly balanced. The first song is the beautiful ‘A Kiss’ from Thomas Hardy’s final volume of poetry – ‘Moments of Vision’. The idea of the song is a balance between ‘an innocent love’ with ‘love as an eternal theme’. The music succeeds in presenting an almost time-stopping mood that echoes the reflective nature of the poem. The music contrasts the diatonic melody and a more chromatic accompaniment, perhaps reflecting the two sides of love presented in the poem. Interestingly, Ian Venables told me that ‘A Kiss’ is ‘perhaps stylistically the closest I get to Finzi.’ However he does insist that any ‘aural references were not conscious ones’.

Robert Graves’ fine evocation of the ‘haphazard’ flight of the cabbage white butterfly is well stated. It has become the Venables’ most popular song and was composed at the request of the late Lady Bliss. It is a short work that echoes the unpredictability of the butterfly’s progress with ‘pointillistic’ harmonic writing.

Theodore Roethke’s charming and wistful poem ‘The Hippo’ is given an appropriate setting that matches the tongue-in-cheek sentiment of the author. Graham Lloyd notes the pause on the word ‘yawn’ in ‘… he starts to yawn, it takes all day’. However the music is a little bit more melancholy than the spirit of the poem demands.

Finally, Edna St Vincent Millay’s fine poem ‘At Midnight’ is a reflection on her past loves and is a fine example of a sonnet. Perhaps the most moving lines are the last – ‘I cannot say what loves have come and gone/ I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.’ The music complements the almost impressionistic quality of the words and succeeds in providing added value to what is a truly beautiful poem.

The quality of the playing is excellent and fully reflects the deep emotional concerns of much of this music. All the performers are well able to cope with the mood changes – especially the more humorous moments in these works. Venables has a good champion for his songs in the tenor Andrew Kennedy. The CD liner-notes are well written and are immediately helpful to the listener in gaining an understanding of these works.

Ian Venables is a composer who is going from strength to strength. I have noted above (and elsewhere) that his style is largely one of innovation within received tradition: it is this that makes his music approachable and ultimately successful. But the greatest thing of all is that each of these pieces has the capacity to move the listener. No more need be added.

John France

The Gramophone, September 2010

Ian Venables has a distinctive "voice", no less his own on account of its incorporating accents of his forebears – in this selection of his work those that came most to mind were Purcell, Tippett, Warlock and Bartok. To myself as listener these are congenial reference-points and they offer a way in to speculation as to why it is that his own, very personal, form of utterance falls as on prepared ground. A further element in the compound (as I hear it) is a more unlikely one: in the intenser moments of yearning there is something Italianate. Restrained and refined, of course, but as it were pressing for release is the aching lyricism of (dare I say it?) a composer like the Cilea of L’arlesiana.

In the present programme the constant factor is the string quartet which Venables (like his arranger in the Four Songs, Graham Lloyd) uses most effectively. The three-movement Quartet is an appealing work, the outer movements set off by the Allegretto scherzando, which dances away happily with a good tune to help. Even here, in his writing for strings, the instruments sing – one could almost fancy they had words written into their parts. In the songs themselves, the vocal line seems central, not as in so many modem compositions added to accommodate the text, and they show a feeling for the singing voice (it’s as though the composer sings internally as he writes). And of course Andrew Kennedy does well by them: strong, assured and expressive. Yet I’m afraid my own enjoyment of his singing is limited, much as in an earlier Venables song recording (4/00) that came my way where I wrote of the tenor Kevin McLean-Muir that I found "the elimination of vibrancy an enfeebling feature of the English school" – and I do here. All this straight-line definition nags, and the tone (as recorded at least) becomes disagreeably hard. Perhaps it is because of this that in the present recital I enjoyed the String Quartet most and the Dante Quartet’s playing throughout.

John Steane

The Observer, 22nd August 2010

Recorded for the first time, here is Ian Venables’s sinewy string quartet, op 32, given an expressive reading by the hugely impressive Dante Quartet. English art song’s melancholy legacy runs from Dowland through to Parry, Quilter, Vaughan Williams and Warlock and today finds its voice in composers such as Venables. His quartet of elegant John Clare settings, Invite, to Eternity Op31 joins others from various poetic sources, each displaying his stylish and graceful melodic invention, vividly realised in Andrew Kennedy’s plangent tenor and the keenly judged playing of the Dantes.

Stephen Pritchard

  1. Invite, to Eternity, Op.31 – Born Upon an Angel?s Breast – –
  2. – An Invite, to Eternity – –
  3. – Evening Bells – –
  4. – I am – –
  5. Four Songs with String Quartet – A Kiss, Op.15 – (arr. Graham J Lloyd) –
  6. – Flying Crooked, Op.28 no.1 – –
  7. – The Hippo, Op.33 no.6 – –
  8. – At Midnight, Op.28 no.2 – –
  9. String Quartet, Op.32 – Allegro con energia; meno mosso ed appassionato; piu vivo – –
  10. – Allegretto scherzando – –
  11. – Adagio e molto espressivo; presto agitato – –