Ian Venables has long enjoyed a deserved reputation as a renowned composer of English song, but in his latest offering he has surpassed even his own amazingly high benchmark.
Through these Pale Cold Days is a five-movement song-cycle setting five poets who served in World War One, and Venables' immediate reaction upon reading his chosen texts was one of inadequacy in the face of such powerful poetry. He needn't have worried; his quietly insistent powerful responses weave these five disparate poems into a brilliantly unified structure which can only add to their strength of communication.
And communication has always been one of the strong points of Venables' music, direct, unfussy, and somehow cutting directly to the heart. Here an abundance of telling melodic devices combines with harmonic anger and subtle commentary, all conveyed over a merciless tread, now martial, now the beating of a fragile heart, which underpins the unstoppable and unspeakable horror of what our soldiers faced a century ago.
Venables' pen was grim and ironic in Wilfred Owen's "The Send-Off", laconically grief-stricken in Francis St Vincent Morris' "Procrastination", numbing in Isaac Rosenberg's "Through the Pale Cold Days", desperately extrovert in Siegfried Sassoon's "Suicide in the Trenches", leading directly into the chilled visionariness of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy's "If You Forget".
Ending on a high sustained long note, tenor Nick Pritchard had throughout displayed otherworldly head-notes and wonderful diction and fluidity of phrasing. Benjamin Frith combined both anger and compassion in the vivid piano accompaniments, and Louise Williams provided a spectral presence in the commentaries Venables entrusts to the viola, the perfect instrument to convey a cool, lamenting despair.
This premiere was given within the context of a very special evening in the august and serene Perrins Hall, Worcester Royal Grammar School remembering its pupils who had perished during both World Wars, and particularly those at the Battle of the Somme, the vigil of whose centenary we were commemorating.