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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Christopher HOWELL (b. 1953)
Cypresses - 20 Pieces for Piano
Barcarolle [3:17]
Magnificat [3:44]
Threnody [3:47]
Consolation [3:11]
Spring Cypresses [1:42]
An Easter Flower Gift [2:48]
Valse Triste [2:23]
Summer Cypresses [2:33]
Those Endearing Young Charms [2:05]
It Was Long Ago [5:13]
Hurrahing in Harvest [2:47]
Autumn Cypresses [3:09]
Gloria [2:16]
Calvary [2:44]
I Was Not Ever Thus [2:36]
Berceuse [3:17]
Paean [1:57]
Winter Cypresses [3:24]
Joy Shall Be Yours [2:12]
Too Late [3:18]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 5-6 June 2008, Studio L’Eremo, Lessona, Italy. DDD
The Sheva label can be contracted by email: destefaniermanno@libero.it
SHEVA COLLECTION SH 011 [59:65]

Experience Classicsonline

 

Pianist and composer, the London-born and now Italian resident Christopher Howell has recorded a set of his own compositions titled Cypresses. Howell explains, “These pieces are among many written over a period of almost ten years, not all originally in their present form or with their present titles.” It seems that there is no significance behind the name Cypresses. They composer tells us that it, “…may be taken as consistent with the generally dark colouring of the music.” That said, while there is a general underlying disposition of sadness and yearning in these well crafted miniatures I didn’t find them predominantly dark in mood.

The opening Barcarolle has a nocturnal feel. It is a sultry mood painting of a warm summer night in a quiet city. Not unlike a J.S. Bach Prelude the Magnificat has a slight jazzy feel, whether consciously or not, in the manner of Jacques Loussier. Poignancy and tenderness frame a weightier central section in the Threnody and the very brief Consolation has a warm passionate feel reminding me of a lullaby.

I enjoyed the light and uplifting piece Spring Cypresses and also the serious temperament of An Easter Flower Gift with its undercurrent of tension. With charming rusticity I found the Valse Triste evocative of lazy summer days in verdant countryside. After the initial shock and stress of a thunderstorm the Summer Cypresses soon gives way to a scene of freshness and clarity and the feelings of relief.

Redolent of American Civil War folk-songs the piece Those Endearing Young Charms is gentle and melodic. It Was Long Ago is haunting and mysterious yet the mood of romance is never far away. The bucolic Hurrahing in Harvest is evocative of children playing in the cornfields with raucous abandon. A slight underlying anxiety in Autumn Cypresses is perhaps an anticipation of bad news that contrasts with the uplifting and vigorous romp of the Gloria.

Despite the sacred connotations of its title the melodic piece Calvary reminded me of the bustling excitement of a Californian town during the American gold rush. With I Was Not Ever Thus I could visualize painting flowers for a still life drawing. I experienced the Berceuse as calm and meditative and the miniature Paean suggested kite flying in a fresh and blustery autumn wind.

The scene of frost and ice over the pasture permeates through Winter Cypresses however the warm comfort of the farm house is never far way. Radiating cheerfulness the invigorating miniature Joy Shall Be Yours evokes a celebration of good news with a contrasting episode of contemplation. The final Cypress titled Too Late is poignant and reflective perhaps mirroring the mood of a painful parting after a love affair.

I congratulate the versatile Christopher Howell for composing and performing these accessible and appealing piano miniatures. As soloist Howell conveys his intentions to the listener with playing of unquenchable enthusiasm, considerable assurance and an impressive naturalness. In the 1980s I would regularly attend BBC Philharmonic concerts as part of the studio audience at the BBC New Broadcasting House, Manchester. These concerts recorded in front of an invited audience would often include world première performances of mainly contemporary works. Hearing these first recordings of Howell’s Cypresses reminded me just how thrilling it is to hear new works leaving me eager for more.

 

Michael Cookson

And a further perspective from Rob Barnett

If you are a British music enthusiast you might well recall the name of Christopher Howell from an earlyish Tremula CD of the piano music of Cyril Scott. Since then he has devoted much of his time to the appraisal and advocacy of the music of Stanford; indeed in this same group of Sheva releases he can be heard in an original and tangy anthology of Stanford's solo piano music review. I am rather sorry to have missed reviewing his CD of the Stanford cello sonatas; one in which he collaborated with cellist Alison Moncrieff-Kelly.

Quite apart from Howell’s dedication to the music of the Dublin-born Stanford, he is a composer in his own right. This is practically the first chance we have had to hear it and, what’s more, the composer playing it. The Cypresses sequence is tonal, maybe tending towards the subdued and certainly it’s very pleasing. This group of twenty pieces was not written or planned as a sequence. Cypresses (nothing to do with Dvořák) seemed a fitting title although the moods are far more wide-ranging than the marmoreal and crepuscular. If the names have anything to do with it it's worth noting that there are four pieces in which the word ‘Cypresses’ appears, one for each of the four seasons. They are distributed with some rough equality of proportion through the twenty numbers. There is a Medtnerian Barcarolle, a Magnificat that flanks with graceful fugal Handelian patterning a plangent dignified core. The Threnody is redolent of early Bridge in repose. It is followed by a serene and unassertive Consolation. Spring Cypresses seems to suggest nodding trees stirred by a summer breeze. An Easter Flower Gift  is a slowly tolling Rachmaninovian meditation.  Summer Cypresses has a bell-clear ringing heroism about it as well as a cantabile underpinning. In this the spirit of the more heroic Rachmaninov Etude-Tableaux is not far away. Those Endearing Young Charms and It was Long Ago are simple narrative tales with the first one carrying a Grainger-like flavour and the second a darkling ballad tone. The ambling peace of Hurrahing in Harvest is followed by Gloria and Calvary each of which have echoes of primitive ‘tin tabernacle’ hymns. In fact hymns appear to be something of a theme across these twenty pieces. When Howell is in dramatic mode the music has a power that reminded me of another contemporary tonalist, Lionel Sainsbury. Many of these pieces coast close to the beckoning shoals of piano stool sentimentality but then very often surprise you by striking out into other realms - often steeped in romantic rhetoric. Though the composer appears to reject the suggestion I am left wondering about a biographical schema to this group.

This is a pleasingly accessible if generally subdued sequence. The candidly emotional melodic writing cannot disguise the inventive and distinctive fibre of the this music.

 

Rob Barnett

Christopher Howell is a reviewer for MusicWeb International

 

 

 

 

 

 


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