There are at least four excellent reasons why this CD should
be at the top of
the list for all Herbert Howells enthusiasts.
The first is that the music is superbly sung by the well-known and highly respected
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. I guess that for many folk this
choir is a little in the shadow of the better known outfit at King’s College!
However, a brief look at their current catalogue reveals a stunning programme
of music, much of which is British. Many listeners will already have the Naxos
recordings of choral music by Walton, Berkeley, Rubbra and Howells. Yet their
range of singing is not limited to the English classics and includes major works
by Haydn, Liszt and Duruflé. However, the present CD on the Chandos label
is the first (I hope) in a new signing deal for the choir. For those listeners
who have followed the choir’s progress over the years, with their musical
directors, George Guest and Christopher Robinson, it gives a fine opportunity
to hear Andrew Nethsingha in charge of proceedings. Certainly, based on this
CD, they will not be disappointed. Soloists, both singers and instrumentalists,
add value to a series of excellent performances.
Secondly, a good reason for rushing out to the record shop and buying this CD
is the excellent balance of the programme. This disc presents three major strands
- well established repertoire, some lesser known works and, perhaps most excitingly,
some first performances. Two old favourites are given: ‘Like as the Hart’ and ‘A
Spotless Rose’. The former is the last of the wartime Four Anthems
were written in Cheltenham in 1941. This is a justifiably popular piece with
its cool mood that lies somewhere, as the programme notes suggest, between the
cathedral and the jazz club. ‘A Spotless Rose’ is, like Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ a
near perfect example of the fusion of words and music.
The Salve Regina
is an early piece: there are some nine of ten versions
of this work available in the CD catalogues. The piece was composed for Richard
Terry and the choir at Westminster Cathedral. It is one of Four Anthems to
the Blessed Virgin
and was completed in 1915. Written in six-parts it has
a solo boy treble held in reserve for the closing bars. It is a piece of haunting
A number of other works that are perhaps less well known include The Sequence
for St Michael,
which is a setting of a Medieval Latin text written by Alcuin
and translated by the scholar Helen Waddell. This is a four-part motet with organ
accompaniment and written as a commission for St John’s College in 1961
to celebrate the 450th
anniversary of the founding of the College.
Its complexity explores a variety of textures including a central section for
solo tenor. In fact, it is almost a cantata in its concept. Some of this music
is very beautiful and some is terrifying.
As the liner-notes for this CD point out the ‘undoubted “novelty” (although
not a premiere) is ‘By the Waters of Babylon’. It is unusually scored
for baritone solo, violin, cello and organ. To my ear the work is similar to
the Missa Sabrinensis
- not in scale, certainly, but in the tension generated
between the secular and the sacred. Certainly, the Mass is a work that could
never be used in a liturgical context: it can be viewed as a massive ‘tone-poem’ describing
the ‘spirit’ and landscape of the River Severn. The present work
is described as a ‘rhapsody’: it is not a religious setting in any
conventional sense of the word: more of a ‘pastoral reflection’ on
the words and well and truly situated in the Gloucestershire countryside as opposed
to the Holy Land. Howells makes use of folk-inflected melodies in this piece
- but never folksong. It is full of regret and perhaps a little fear: the composer
was suffering a severe illness and was not sure that he had long to live. The
mood of The Lark Ascending
is clearly prevalent in this setting, although
it is doubtful that Howells had actually heard that particular essay! Its texture
is characterised by a sense of economy, sometimes becoming rather astringent.
I enjoyed the short Grace for 10 Downing Street
. It was commissioned by
the late Edward Heath for use at a dinner given at the Prime Minister’s
residence on 29 March 1972 in honour of Sir William Walton’s seventieth
birthday. It is very much an epitome of Howells’ style at this time with
its ‘preponderance of melisma’. It was regularly used at dinners
during Sir Edward’s tenure at Downing Street. I wonder if it is a favourite
with the present incumbent?
Reason Number Three must be the three liturgical settings performed here. The
Te Deum (Collegium Regale) is the only work on this CD that was composed whilst
Herbert Howells was acting organist at St John’s College. However, as the
title implies it was actually composed for King’s College - just down the
road. It is a piece of music that epitomises the Anglican musical tradition as
realised by Howells - long melismatic melodies balanced with sensual harmonies.
The following year the composer produced a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc
Dimittis for his ‘home’ Cathedral at Gloucester. The sleeve-notes
point out that in this work the composer once again puts the spiritual and the
sensuous into equilibrium. He juxtaposes the simplicity of the boys’ voices
at the start of the Magnificat with the powerful men’s voices n the more
dramatic moments of the canticle. The general mood of this work is a balance
between delicacy and restraint. There are some heart-rending moments in this
Finally in the liturgical group the Choir of St John’s College sing the
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannnis Cantabrigiense). For
a work of such high calibre it is surprising to note that there are only about
three recordings currently available. There is a bit of a tale associated with
this piece. Apparently the setting was originally intended for Salisbury Cathedral.
However, there occurred an error in an article in The Times about the composer
by Frank Howes, where all the liturgical settings were listed. It included a
reference to a setting for St John’s College Choir which did not actually
exist. So Howells decided to offer the then musical director George Guest a redirected
version of ‘Salisbury’ piece. Salisbury Cathedral had to wait until
1966 for theirs! It is a work that is characterised by economy and clarity rather
than the more complex and sensuous harmonies of some of the other settings.
The last good reason for buying this CD is for the two short premieres. I had
not heard the motet ‘One Thing have I desired’. This work was composed
for the 75th
Patronal Festival of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton.
It was commissioned by the legendary priest Walter Hussey, so well known for
his patronage of the arts. It is a setting of the 27th
Psalm for four-part
mixed chorus. It is a haunting work that combines the numinous with a somewhat
more earthy sensuality.
The other ‘premiere recording’ is the chant for Psalm 142. ‘I cried
the Lord with my voice’ is a typically subtle setting of these great words.
It is certainly a chant that should make an appearance in choirs and places where
they sing Evensong on the 29th
day of the month.
No more requires to be said.