Ian Venables: Requiem | Howells: anthems for choir & orchestra

Conductor Benjamin Nicholas draws parallels between the familiar English choral sound of Howells and that of contemporary composer Ian Venables. Venables’ Requiem has already been warmly received by critics in a 2020 recording with just organ accompaniment. Now, Nicholas and his Merton College choir present it in an orchestrated version made specially for this recording.

The Howells items here are also premiere recordings: new instrumental accompaniments to two of his Four Anthems, in arrangements by Howells scholars Howard Eckdahl and Jonathan Clinch, illuminate and intensify his rich choral writing like back-lighting on a stained-glass window, and they are complemented by the first recording of Howells’ original orchestration of The House of the Mind – a chance to hear one of his major underperformed works, introspective yet dramatic.

"This inspired recording project – a synthesis of musical intersections and connections, repertoire new and old, arrangements and homages – has been so carefully conceived and knitted together that it’s a winner before you even hear a note. Once you do, however, it only gets better ... The whole recording feels like an exercise in the play of musical light and shade, arrangements picking out new moments in silhouette, recessing others into shadow. Take Howells’s Like as the hart, for example: in Howard Eckdahl’s orchestration the text’s water-brooks swirl and eddy with new currents, a reflective pool beneath the blended choral voices. Bolder and more striking is Jonathan Clinch’s new arrangement of O pray for the peace of Jerusalem, whose opening solo viola harks back not just to Howells’s ravishing Elegy but also to Vaughan Williams before him. Where organ gives vertical emphasis, strings exaggerate the endless horizon-lines of Howells’s phrases to glorious effect. Howells’s own original orchestral arrangement of The House of the Mind (never before recorded) is another bonus ... Benjamin Nicholas (also the soloist in the Rhapsody) draws consistently confident, warm sounds from Merton Choir – at their best when galvanised by the organ and the very classy Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia in full cry. There’s nothing fey about their Howells but it’s the darker moment of the Venables – the knotty ‘Libera me’, the middle section of the ‘Lux aeterna’ – that really make their mark"

'The first time I heard Ian Venables’ Requiem I was moved and greatly impressed by this profoundly expressive composition, even though it wasn’t then quite complete. Since then, I’ve heard it many times and my admiration for it has only deepened. Indeed, though one must always be careful in the use of superlatives, I have come to believe that it is a masterpiece. It is very well written for the voices and, in this orchestration, the original organ part is expertly re-imagined in a highly effective fashion. The orchestral colourings enhance the music in a very satisfying way. The present performance is superb in all respects ... Benjamin Nicholas leads a gripping performance ... l. The Choir of Merton College has in just a few years become established as one of the very finest collegiate choirs in the UK and they’re on top form here. They’ve made a series of splendid recordings for Delphian, all of which I’ve heard, but I venture to suggest this is their finest achievement to date ... Outstanding in every respect'

John Quinn

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'Sheer beauty of sound runs like a silver thread through nearly all of Howells’ work ... this [recording] is deeply contemplative, elegaic, restrained. One must speculate it speaks to the person who wrote it. Howells abominated war and violence with a quiet passion and it seems clear he poured his feelings into this anthem ... [Venables'] Agnus Dei holds us in the grip of suppressed passion, a riveting stasis , before the Lamb of God finally cleanses the sins of the world. Overall, Venables' harmonic language is lively, pulsing with passion but always fittingly controlled in a way appropriate to the solemnity of the occasion ... Choral music in the city of dreaming spires has, of course, been dominated until comparatively recently by the choirs of Christ Church, Magdalen and New College. The full-bodied grandeur of the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, is all we hope and expect a choral ensemble to be and they fully deserve to be recognised as equal among firsts, so to say. Accompanied by the buoyant Oxford Sinfonia, under conductor, organist and Musical Director of the college, Benjamin Nicholas, they are agile, sensitive, commanding, fluent. This album is a flawless triumph, emotionally uplifting and intense'

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"For admirers of church choral music written as part of the Anglican tradition this is not just an important disc but an exceptionally beautiful one as well ... Not only does this disc provide premiere recordings of orchestral versions, the actual performances themselves, quite apart from the editions used, are of the very highest musical calibre backed up by near-ideal engineering and production ... new recordings which seem to have the ideal combination of purity and poise of musical line both technically and emotionally but also have that undercurrent of held emotion and laser-focused intent. Under conductor Benjamin Nicholas’ direction the fresh-voiced young singers of the Choir of Merton College sing quite gloriously with perfect balance, blend and intonation ... [Venables' Requiem] was conceived and written during the 2020 pandemic but tries to convey a message of optimism and hope ... With performances and music of this stature it is good to know that the British church choral tradition is in safe hands"

Nick Barnard

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'This isn't music to shake mountains, but its craftmanship, sincerity, and ability to stir the more tender emotions - well reflected in this performance - remains undeniably appealing'

"Two British composers in the pastoral tradition not included in the Williams collection areHerbert Howells andIan Venables, who are brought together on a Delphian disc featuring the choir of Merton College, Oxford, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas. Three of Howells’s anthems with orchestral accompaniments are paired with Venables’s 2018 Requiem, which was originally composed with organ, but is performed here in a newly commissioned orchestral version"

"A warmth and mellow fruitfulness surround this lovely new orchestral version of Venables' recent Requiem ...There is a real mellowness to the work which seems to have been brought out by the new orchestration, and it feels as if Venables' Requiem has found its true form. Certainly, the version for choir and organ is wonderfully practical and useful, but the colours and the imagination in this new reading of the work are immense ... "


★ ★ ★ ★
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"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"


"Originally concieved for choir and organ, the Requiem here is presented in new clothes: an orchestral version tailored specifically for this recording which adds further colour and texture to the piece ... By turns moving and consoling to the living, Venables' Requiem here recieves a superb rendition from Benjamin Nicholas and his Oxford forces, ever responsive to the composer's emotional tradjectory through the liturgical text ... A thoroughly admirable release"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Release Date: 11 November 2022
Catalogue No: DCD34252
Total playing time: 77:30

Recorded on 27-29 June 2021 in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
Producer/Engineer: Paul Baxter
24-bit digital editing: Jack Davis
24-bit digital mastering: Paul Baxter

Design: John Christ
Booklet editor: Henry Howard
Cover: Philip Wilson Steer (1860–1942), Painswick Beacon 1915.
Session photography: Matthew Johnson



Singing In Secret: Clandestine Catholic Music by William Byrd CD Delphian Records


Venables:Requiem Op. 48, V. Sanctus

Album Booklet

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