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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Thee Will I Love (1970) [6:11]
Hills of the North (1977) [4:12]
I Love All Beauteous Things (1977) [6:55]
Missa Aedis Christi (1958) [19:51]
Six Short Pieces for Organ [17:42]
This World, my God, is held within your hand (1968) [1:55]
Haec Dies (1918) [2;38]
A Maid Peerless (1931, rev. 1951) [6:04]
Sweetest of Sweets (1977) [5:21]
O Holy City, seen of John (1962) [2:21]
The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin/Judy Martin
Tristan Busscher (organ)
rec. 22-24 February 2008, St Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin. DDD
English texts provided
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD151 [73:33]
Experience Classicsonline

I first encountered these performers a couple of years ago when I reviewed a very fine CD of music by Francis Pott. Now they turn their attention to Herbert Howells.
 
I love Howells’ music and I have collected many CDs of his music over the years. However, this Signum disc is extremely valuable because, instead of including yet another version of Like as the Hart, the Collegium Regale music or A Spotless Rose, it presents a collection of much less familiar pieces.
 
At the heart of the programme is the Missa Aedis Christi (‘Mass of the House of Christ’), which was composed for the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Despite the Latin title, the setting is in English, apart from the ‘Kyrie’. It’s a succinct setting – the longest movement, the Credo, lasts 6:15 – but it’s extremely effective. The slow, unaccompanied ‘Kyrie’ is very beautiful and its harmonic language is quintessential Howells. The ‘Credo’ is an impressive movement, especially at the affirmative proclamation of the Resurrection and the strong expression of faith that follows it. The hushed, prayerful ‘Agnus Dei’ is an intense little piece that inspires some particularly dedicated singing from the choir.
 
Of particular interest to admirers of Howells will be the Six Short Pieces for Organ, which I’ve not encountered before. Howells seems to have envisaged composing a collection of six brief organ works but never did so. In fact, as we read in the notes, these pieces were completed and fashioned as a set after the composer’s death when Robin Wells “took six of the more substantial sketches and drafts [of organ pieces] from among the many deposited in the library of the Royal College of Music, and edited and completed them for publication.” I don’t know how complete were the sketches on which Wells worked but the finished product sounds completely convincing. In an imaginative piece of programme planning, the six pieces have been placed separately in the programme, so that each one follows a movement from the Mass.
 
As the title of the collection implies the pieces are not major compositions in the way that, say, the Rhapsodies are. The longest of them lasts less than six minutes. That’s a fine piece, marked ‘Quasi lento: teneramente’, which is the last one that we hear and which, very appropriately, follows the ‘Agnus Dei’ of the Mass. From quiet beginnings it builds to a powerful, emotional climax before subsiding to a reposeful ending. The third of the pieces, ‘Aria’, is a good example of Howells’ ability to spin a sustained melodic line while the ‘Allegro Impetuoso’ that follows hot on its heels is fiery and energetic. Tristan Busscher plays all these pieces very well indeed
 
The programme also contains a couple of hymns, ‘This World, my God, is held within your hand’ and ‘O Holy City, seen of John’. I wouldn’t say that either is quite as memorable as Michael, the wonderful tune for ‘All my Hope on God is Founded’ and, in truth, I think congregations may find either a bit taxing. However, both deserve to be better known than they are.
 
The trio of choral works that open the recital are all very fine. Thee Will I Love was written for Peterborough Cathedral and sets a text by Robert Bridges with typical sensitivity to the words. The bittersweet harmonic richness of Howells’ style is well to the fore. Hills of the North is for upper voices only, no doubt because it was written to celebrate the centenary of a girls’ school, Clifton High School, Bristol. It’s suitably celebratory and was described by Barry Rose as a “virtuoso tour-de-force for upper-voice choirs.” Best of all is I Love All Beauteous Things, another Bridges setting. This luxuriant, expressive music is full of ecstasy and Paul Andrews, the author of the liner-notes plausibly suggests that Bridges’ words offer a summation of Howells’ own artistic credo.
 
There is some lovely music on this CD, the contents of which remind us of the extent to which Herbert Howells enriched the repertoire of church music. I’m delighted that in planning this programme Judy Martin has chosen to focus on some of the composer’s less familiar music. She has trained her choir very well indeed and their committed and technically fine singing confirms the very favourable impression made by their earlier disc of Francis Pott’s music. The choir, by the way, consists of eight sopranos, fvie each of altos and tenors and four basses. They blend delightfully and produce a well-focused, clear and bright sound that falls very pleasingly on the ear. Diction is admirably clear at all times. In addition to playing his solos with great sill and sensitivity Tristan Busscher gives the choir excellent support from the organ console – and I presume he plays the piano in A Maid Peerless.
 
The recorded sound is first rate with the choir nicely balanced both internally and against the organ. The sound of the organ itself is very well reported. Documentation includes full texts, short but good notes and a full specification of the organ. And a special word of thanks to Signum for providing a booklet in which the typeface is of a legible size and clearly reproduced. I wish all labels were as considerate.
 
John Quinn
 

 


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