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HERBERT HOWELLS Hymnus Paradisi; A Kent Yeoman's Wooing Song  (premiere recording) Joan Rodgers, soprano - Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor - Alan Opie, baritone - BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus - Richard Hickox  CHANDOS CHAN 9744 [65]

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Believe it or not : this is the fourth recording of Howells' masterpiece. After Willcocks' historical reading (on EMI, now reissued in CD format), Handley's (on HYPERION ) and a more confidential one on JADE (JACD 032) which I do not know, here is Hickox's view of a piece which he had to record one day or another. This is the kind of work which he relishes and his performance may be one of the finest, if not the best of all, even if Handley's is almost as fine. Hickox's reading is marginally slower than Handley's but it has all the fire and precise articulation required. Il also receives a magnificent recording. Rarely have I heard the organ's pedal points with such immediacy. Just listen to the beginning of the last section to hear what I mean. The singing is superbly assured throughout : the soloists are excellent and the BBC Symphony Chorus copes bravely with Howells' demanding choral writing. Hymnus Paradisi is a great choral work and Howells' masterpiece. With four commercial recordings available it may be said to have achieved some sort of classic status its many qualities deserve. However as I mentioned in an earlier review Hymnus Paradisi will never be popular in the widest meaning of the word for the musical demands put on the performers will always lie beyond the capacities of good amateur choirs and orchestras. The same is true as far as Howells ' Stabat Mater and Missa Sabrinensis are concerned. We must therefore be grateful to CHANDOS for making all three works available for long, one hopes, in such fine performances and recordings.

The present release is also most welcome and a "must" for all admirers of Howells for the first recording of A Kent Yeoman's Wooing Song. This rather unusual work (i.e. by Howells' standards) written as a wedding present for Keith Falkner and his bride Isabel has Howells in an unusual extrovert mood. Though composed in 1933 it remained unscored and unperformed for nearly thirty years. It is possible the success of Hymnus Paradisi in the early fifties encouraged Howells to orchestrate the piece and have it performed. It is scored for soprano and baritone, chorus and a fairly large orchestra. The mood is extrovert and brilliant throughout and the piece as a whole is hugely enjoyable though again Howells' choral writing is as demanding as ever requiring much stamina, precise articulation and intonation, strength and resistance, which it gets in abundance in the present reading. This wonderful piece is new to me as it may be to many members and the present recording is thus a most welcome addition to Howells' expanding discography.

Hickox's performance of Hymnus Paradisi and Handley's are both very fine and the only way to avoid a painful choice is to have both recordings since each of them also offers a Howells premiere, i.e. An English Mass (Handley) and A Kent Yeoman's Wooing Song (Hickox). This most welcome release is unreservedly recommended.


Hubert Culot


Hubert Culot

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