Philip Venables: Below the belt

Natalie Raybould, Leigh Melrose, Dario Dugandzic, Melinda Maxwell; Phoenix Piano Trio; Ligeti String Quartet, et al; London Sinfonietta/Richard Baker (NMC)

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P Venables The Revenge of Miguel Cotto; Metamorphoses after Britten; Klaviertrio im Geiste; Numbers 76-80 – tristan und isolde; Numbers 91-95; Illusions
Natalie Raybould (soprano), Leigh Melrose, Dario Dugandzic (baritone), Melinda Maxwell (oboe); Phoenix Piano Trio; Ligeti String Quartet, et al; London Sinfonietta/Richard Baker
NMC NMCD238 73:16mins

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Philip Venables’s unmissable debut album, Below the Belt, is a smelling- salts wake-up to the dangers of cultural complacency. Ferocious in his socio-political critique, the title pun also reflects an experimental preoccupation with words used to convey fractured states. Injustice, greed and hypocrisy, gender identity and sexual freedom, violence, propaganda, the illusion of democracy: all are tackled head-on via a kind of super-real abstraction in music of forensic clarity and visceral force – but also great tenderness and generosity. These six, superbly assured works (2010-15) reveal the same, lacerating frankness in diverse chamber contexts as Venables’s groundbreaking opera, 4:48 Psychosis (2016). Not all use words as textual basis: Klaviertrio im Geiste (an exquisitely sensitive Phoenix Trio) is a ghosting of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio, while Melinda Maxwell’s plangent solo oboe interweaves the album, separating the four movements of Metamorphoses after Britten. The vocal works are unconventional in approach. Utilising an array of outstanding soloists and musicians, each focuses on speech – shouted, whispered, chanted – through often savagely satirical juxtapositions, pounding neo-Dada to delicately post-minimal. Numbers 76-80 and Numbers 91-95 are deeply affecting ‘settings’ of poems about alienation, while The Revenge of Miguel Cotto recounts a boxer’s story with equal brutality and love. Most graphically urgent is Illusions – which performance artist David Hoyle acidly exposes through alternating political rant and twisted seduction (video download included). Supported with terrific intelligence by conductor Richard Baker’s London Sinfonietta – the muzak, especially, disturbs – this is a remarkable piece, sensationally performed.

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Steph Power