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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet and string quartet (1919) [11.31]
Clarinet Sonata (1946) [21.03]
Prelude for Harp (1915) [5.58]
A Near-Minuet for clarinet and piano (1946) [2.42]
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E minor (1923) [24.24]
Mobius: Robert Plane (clarinet); Alison Nicholls (harp); Sophia Rahman (piano); Phillippe Honoré (violin); Lucy Gould (violin); Ashan Pillai (viola); Josephine Knight (cello)
rec. St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, UK 1 Dec 2002 (5tet); Potton Hall, Suffolk, 26-27 Oct 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557188 [66.05]

 

Produced in association with the Howells Society, this Naxos collection offers both novelties (albeit brief ones) and relatively familiar chamber works. Everything here is redolent of the lush greenness of the English countryside even when it is supposed to be about The Rockies. Howells’ writing is soaked in ecstatic solvents and does not shy away from the creation of rich and evocative textures. The Quintet (single movement and of concert overture proportions), Prelude and Violin Sonata date from the Great War years or just after. The two pieces for clarinet and piano are from just after the second war. The Quintet sinks blissfully into a contented Delian sunset. Written a couple of years after the Piano Quartet it shares, in its first section, the head-over-heels joyous excitement of that work but is finally and predominantly more reflective. Throughout the Quintet I did not hear any key action noises whereas they are irritatingly evident in the Clarinet Sonata. This is a pity although a minor cavil in the face of a heart-easing pastoral serenade which has some of the sincere musing and singing of the Finzi Clarinet concerto without quite matching the Finzi's memorability. The Sonata was written for Frederick Thurston who premiered the Finzi. Remember also that one of Howells’ clavichord pieces refers to young Gerald in Finzi's Rest. Plane, aside from the quibbling annoyance of the key action, is sympathetic and mines the work deeply for its pastoral 'juice' as well as for the mercury-winged caprice of the allegro ritmico. A Near-Minuet has those muffled clicks again but mentally filtering that out we have a piece that is Puck-like, cheery yet with reflective tendencies. The harp Prelude is almost six minutes long. Alison Nicholls reveals the work's griping mystery with playing that takes pleasure in silky delicacy and naturally phrased variation of volume. The playing is breath-taking; one can sense the moment by moment care for colouration and the beating of fancy's wings. The longest piece here is the Violin Sonata (his last). This is up against very strong competition from the Barritts on a new bargain price Hyperion Helios disc coupling all three violin sonatas. The Hyperion is superbly played and recorded. It has the advantage of completeness of genre where the Naxos has the merit of recital balance and variety. Despite being the furthest away from the end of the Great War the Sonata is still keyed into a style we associate with the English countryside albeit with a more welcoming but parsimonious attitude to dissonance. Cold winds must have been blowing for Howells to embrace the chirpy pizzicato dance at the start of the central allegro moderato. The work’s inspiration is a 1923 visit to the Canadian Rockies which I hear more in the piano writing towards the end of the final movement than anywhere else. The finale is the movement most closely in step with Howells’ Great War style.

Notes are lucid and eloquent by Howells expert, Andrew Burn.

This disc would have been irresistible if the Piano Quartet had been included but as it is this is a good disc and is essential for the growing ranks of Howells fans (rare, though not unique, appearances for the Near-Minuet and the Prelude - the former on a Clarinet Classics CD; the latter on an all-Rubbra ASV disc). It is also illuminatingly attractive as a classy and generous bargain price introduction for interested newbies.

Rob Barnett



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