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Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
O pray for the peace of Jerusalem (1941 orch. Jonathan Clinch)
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks (1941 orch. Howard Eckdahl)
The House of the Mind (1954)
Ian Venables (b. 1955)
Requiem Op 48 (2018)
God be merciful Op 51 (2020)
Rhapsody ‘In memoriam Herbert Howells’ Op 25 for solo organ* (1996)
Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia/Benjamin Nicholas (organ)
rec. 2021, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford.
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34252 [78]

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. The bulk of the music here will be familiar to collectors in their original choir and organ versions. 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.

The disc opens with three works by Herbert Howells. Howells scholar Jonathan Clinch not only provides the string and organ orchestration for the first work, – O pray for the peace of Jerusalem – he also provides the excellent and insightful liner note. In a burst of remarkable creativity early in 1941 Howells wrote his Four Anthems which remain amongst his most performed and admired church music. Clinch cites the; “elongation of time, with slow tempos, long melodic lines, expressive melismas and the near constant use of gentle dissonance in the accompaniment which give these anthems their hypnotic quality of ‘quiet intensity’....” All of those qualities are present and indeed reinforced in these new recordings which to my ear 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. Howells’ original organ-only accompaniments are masterly but if someone told you that this string version was a newly-discovered version by the composer himself you would accept that unreservedly. To my mind there can be no greater compliment than that. Both of these new arrangements by Jonathan Clinch and Howard Eckdahl are models of appropriate, effective and sympathetic orchestrations. Here they are played by Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia which is in effect a ‘pick-up’ group but one that plays with great skill and empathy. Producer/engineer Paul Baxter has to my ear found an ideal balance between voices, organ and orchestral ensemble – as if the listener is sat slightly away in the body of the chapel so that while the disparate elements intermingle and overlap within the chapel acoustic the detail and inner complexity of the writing can still be enjoyed.

As Clinch points out in the liner the first and third anthems from the set of four recorded here embody the reserve and ecstatic understatement that has come to embody British church music in the 20th Century. Of special interest to Howells’ enthusiasts is the first recording of Howells’ own (string) orchestral version of The House of the Mind. This anthem dates from a full thirteen years later than the preceding items but is occupied by with the same sense of visionary revelation. Howells’ vocal writing is denser and possibly even richer than the anthems and this is mirrored in the string writing which is superficially quite simple but with the harmonic ambiguities and unexpected progressions that are uniquely the composer’s own. The version performed here is in fact Howells’ original conception – the more familiar organ and choir reduction produced as a request from the publisher to facilitate performances. Again the internal balancing of the choir is immaculate and very sensitively handled. Likewise the string accompaniment is clear and present but balanced to warmly envelope the choral writing. I admit that I enjoy this type of choral writing anyway and I knew the work in the more familiar form, but this version in this performance is genuinely revelatory and very powerful. In the liner Clinch reminds the reader that; “[Howells] always stated privately that he didn’t believe in God, but was now desperate for the catharsis that faith might provide.” These three anthems and their air of pained beauty seem to embody the contradiction of faith and doubt that stalked Howells for most of his creative life and which are given perfect expression on this disc.

The music of Ian Venables is far less familiar to me but it clearly follows much the same musical and expressive pathway as Howells. The Requiem Op 48 is Venables’ most substantial choral work running to 39:08 in this performance. The first recording was made in 2019 by the work’s original performers, Adrian Partington, organist Jonathan Hope and the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral and released on Somm to warm reviews. I have not heard that version but would simply note that Partington takes 40:25. The new orchestrated version was made for this Delphian disc. Venables’ orchestra is quite modest; single flute, oboe and clarinet, three trumpets, harp, timpani organ joining the strings and organ. Venables’ text includes the Introit, Kyrie, Offertorium, Pie Jesu, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Libera me and closing Lux aeterna. The instrumental writing and how it has been recorded here seems to function as a thickening and varying of the original organ writing. So trumpets crown a climax or a solo wind will lead the ear in the way that a change of organ registration might. Venables’ use of harmony seems more austere more consciously ‘open’, perhaps less ambiguous than Howells but still powerful and impressive. The climax of the Offertorium is a good example of this ‘ancient and modern’ style. The following Pie Jesu was inserted into the Requiem as a response to the unexpected death of a close friend and is an a capella setting in the original work. Here Venables adds strings which is beautifully done but I can imagine the original – with a boy treble I assume from the Somm liner – being especially moving. I wonder why Venables decided to add the strings? The additional dramatic potential of the orchestral accompaniment is illustrated at the climax to the following Sanctus where the text “Hosanna in excelsis!” exalts with the trumpets and timpani resplendent over the weighty organ. The climax of the Libera me is similarly powerful with the trumpets intoning a kind of plain-song chant over the choir. A quick word for the Dobson organ in Merton College Chapel – only the third American built instrument sent to the UK since World War II. It was installed in 2013 and sounds magnificent and again credit to Paul Baxter for creating a recording where this impressive instrument is weighty and excitingly ‘present’ without swamping either singers or orchestra.

The closing Lux Aeterna is quite surprising for those used to settings by Fauré or Duruflé. There is serenity and acceptance but in the Somm recording liner Venables wrote; “As a metaphor, Lux aeterna (Eternal light) has, for me, a transcendental resonance – one that connects our inner world with the spiritual world that lies ‘beyond the veil”. Musically this translates into a setting that becomes enveloped in harmonic and instrumental warmth and radiance. Perhaps it is a declaration of certainty and faith that Howells could never quite embrace but it makes a powerful and moving conclusion to this accessible and enjoyable work. This generously filled disc is completed by two further Venables works. The first is the premiere recording of a setting of Psalm 67 God be Merciful. This work was conceived and written during the 2020 pandemic but tries to convey a message of optimism and hope. Across its 6:24 duration it reaches a powerful dancing climax with strings and organ again underpinning the choral writing. Again this is an enjoyable work well-performed. If its stature means it is the least impressive choral work on the disc this is simply a measure of the calibre of the rest rather than anything lacking here.

For the closing Rhapsody ‘In memoriam Herbert Howells’ Benjamin Nicholas moves from the conductor’s rostrum to the organ bench and the Dobson organ is given centre stage. Graham J Lloyd contributes the liner note on the Venables works and he believes there to a tangible link between the two composers represented on this disc. Something which, through this “In memoriam”, Venables himself acknowledges. Musically, the writing sounds denser, more chromatically questing than the Requiem. The work lasts 9:19 and reaches a climax around the 6:50 point before subsiding into calm. Again it is beautifully recorded and acts as an effective and very attractive envoi to this wholly enjoyable and very impressive recording. The liner in English only includes full texts, lists of performers, biographies and – as should be clear – useful notes from Jonathan Clinch and Graham J Lloyd.

With performances and music of this stature it is good to know that the British church choral tradition is in safe hands.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn (October 2022)

Published: November 16, 2022

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