If there’s a British composer on a roll at the moment, it’s Philip Venables. His first major opera, a setting of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, premiered in 2016 at the Royal Opera House to rave reviews, subsequently winning a British Composer Award; his concert piece The Gender Agenda, ‘a gameshow for ensemble, video and gameshow host’, will reopen the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 12th April, with subsequent performances in Frankfurt, Porto and Amsterdam; and his new portrait CD Below the Belt, has just been released on NMC.
Four vocal works dominate the album—The Revenge of Miguel Cotto; Numbers 76–80, Tristan and Isolde; Numbers 91-95; and Illusions—with two instrumental pieces—Klaviertrio im Geiste and Metamorphoses After Britten (the four movements of which are distributed throughout)—satisfyingly breaking things up.
There’s an obsessiveness to Venables’ music, a determination to extract every last ounce of energy from a musical idea. The result can be visceral, incredibly direct. In its most distilled and elegant form this can be heard in the piano trio, where motives are developed with compelling economy, even to the point where the first movement is simply marked ‘Tacet.’ The vocal works also have their elegant touches (the use of live cassette recording in Numbers 76–80 being a good example), but here the directness can also be shocking. Texts are chanted by voices together, musical figures are obsessed over until they burn out and, if you also check-out live video performances (a must), there are striking visual touches, such as the slapping of boxing punch bags in The Revenge of Miguel Cotto and the video projection in Illusions (below). This last work is, to my mind, a magnificent achievement: bold, brave, filthy, thought-provoking and outrageously funny. The disk marks, then, the arrival of a major talent. Don’t miss it.
Philip Venables and David Hoyle: Illusions