Andrew Kennedy / Dante Quartet

Ian Venables: At Midnight

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British composer Ian Venables, born in 1955, has been described as a songwriter in the tradition of Hubert Parry, Roger Quilter, Peter Warlock, and Gerald Finzi, and the comparison is apt. They were composers of modest talents, active generations before Venables; Parry, the earliest, died in 1918, and Finzi, the latest, in 1956. Venables' music has much in common with the conservative English pastoralism that tended to characterize their work, and an informed listener unaware of the provenance of the music recorded here might reasonably place it early in the 20th century. It is skillfully written, and Venables has clearly invested it with deep feeling, so it should appeal to fans of post-Romantic English music. The strongest reservations about Venables' music come not only from its unquestioning appropriation of a commonplace idiom but its limited expressive range. The songs are well written for the voice and are generously lyrical, but their tone, with very few exceptions, is one of wistful melancholy. Even the setting of Roethke's decidedly silly "The Hippo" sounds like a lament. There are some lovely songs, particularly "At Midnight," with a text by Edna St. Vincent Millay, where Venables' rueful sadness is absolutely appropriate and genuinely affecting. Venables wrote the song cycle Invite, to Eternity, for voice and string quartet, and Graham J. Lloyd arranged four of the composer's other songs for the same forces. Venables' String Quartet, Op. 32, has a broader range, with some energetic, idiomatic string writing, but it sounds like it could have come from the era of the early Bartók quartets, or even the Debussy and Ravel quartets. Andrew Kennedy is a warm, secure, and expressive tenor, and he makes as strong a case as possible for the songs. The Dante Quartet plays in all the works with intensity and focused tone.

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