Herbert Howells remains an important
figure in British music, whose compositions
will continue to maintain their position
in the repertory. This recording of
chamber music repertoire is therefore
welcome in extending our awareness of
the nature of his art, as it is in raising
the profile of the music itself.
Howells (1892-1983) lived a long life,
surviving the Great War, unlike so many
of his friends and fellow musicians.
Ironically he suffered a life-threatening
illness during the war years, from which
he recovered to live on past ninety.
For many years, until well past the
conventional retirement age, he worked
at the Royal College of Music, where
he was a much loved figure.
The details of the music assembled in
this varied collection are expertly
outlined by Andrew Burn in his accompanying
notes, which are a model of their kind.
The same description might also be accorded
to the performances by the Mobius ensemble.
They have already proved their worth
with a splendid Bax collection, issued
back in the autumn of 2000.
Both these sonatas are substantial works,
playing for in excess of twenty minutes.
The Violin Sonata No. 3 is the earlier
of the two, but it is by no means an
early work. In fact Howells had written
large-scale duo music before this, not
least the excellent Sonata No. 2 from
1917. That piece lay unpublished when
the Third Sonata was composed in 1923,
however, but the experience certainly
prepared Howells well for the new challenge.
The dedicatee was that great British
violinist Albert Sammons, and the inspiration
was drawn from an extended rail journey
across Canada. Andrew Burn reminds us
of this in his note: ‘The elated thrill
of witnessing the heights and majesty
of the mountains’ refers to the influence
of the Rockies on the opening measures
of the finale, Vivace assai ritmico.
Perhaps the rhythmic pacing of other
sections of the work had its inspiration
in that journey too. The performers
are Phillippe Honorée and Sophia
Rahman, and they acquit themselves creditably
The Clarinet Sonata is among Howells’
finest inspirations. Composed during
1946, it was intended for Frederick
Thurston, whose widow Thea King made
a marvellously idiomatic recording with
Clifford Benson (Hyperion CDD22027).
While Robert Plane and Sophia Rahman
do not better this, they do match this
excellent standard in their own right,
and have their own well articulated
points to make about the music, particularly
in terms of fluency of line and sensitivity
The other items are less imposing, effective
though they may be. The ’Near-Minuet’
(also 1946) probably came from music
left over from the Clarinet Sonata,
whereas the Rhapsody Quintet of 1919
is another example of English single-movement
chamber music from earlier in the century.
It is certainly a most beautifully contrived
piece, and it is well served by this
performance. The Prelude for harp of
1915 is the earliest of all these pieces.
Written for one of Howells’ fellow RCM
students, Kate Wilson, it turned out
to be his only composition for solo
harp, which seems a pity, since it is
so sophisticated and sensitive in this
performance by Alison Nicholls.
see also review
by Rob Barnett