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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet and string quartet (1919)
Sonata for clarinet and piano (1946)
Prelude for harp (1915)
A Near-Minuet for clarinet and piano (1946)
Sonata No. 3 in E minor for violin and piano (1923)
Mobius: Robert Plane (clarinet), Alison Nicholls (harp), Sophia Rahman (piano), Phillippe Honorée, Lucy Gould (violins) Ashan Pillai (viola), Josephine Knight (cello)
Recorded 1 December 2002 (Quintet), St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire; 26-27 October 2002 (remainder), Potton Hall, Suffolk
NAXOS 8.557188 [66.05]

Herbert Howells remains an important figure in British music, whose compositions will continue to maintain their position in the repertory. This recording of chamber music repertoire is therefore welcome in extending our awareness of the nature of his art, as it is in raising the profile of the music itself.
Howells (1892-1983) lived a long life, surviving the Great War, unlike so many of his friends and fellow musicians. Ironically he suffered a life-threatening illness during the war years, from which he recovered to live on past ninety. For many years, until well past the conventional retirement age, he worked at the Royal College of Music, where he was a much loved figure.
The details of the music assembled in this varied collection are expertly outlined by Andrew Burn in his accompanying notes, which are a model of their kind. The same description might also be accorded to the performances by the Mobius ensemble. They have already proved their worth with a splendid Bax collection, issued back in the autumn of 2000.
Both these sonatas are substantial works, playing for in excess of twenty minutes. The Violin Sonata No. 3 is the earlier of the two, but it is by no means an early work. In fact Howells had written large-scale duo music before this, not least the excellent Sonata No. 2 from 1917. That piece lay unpublished when the Third Sonata was composed in 1923, however, but the experience certainly prepared Howells well for the new challenge. The dedicatee was that great British violinist Albert Sammons, and the inspiration was drawn from an extended rail journey across Canada. Andrew Burn reminds us of this in his note: ‘The elated thrill of witnessing the heights and majesty of the mountains’ refers to the influence of the Rockies on the opening measures of the finale, Vivace assai ritmico. Perhaps the rhythmic pacing of other sections of the work had its inspiration in that journey too. The performers are Phillippe Honorée and Sophia Rahman, and they acquit themselves creditably enough.
The Clarinet Sonata is among Howells’ finest inspirations. Composed during 1946, it was intended for Frederick Thurston, whose widow Thea King made a marvellously idiomatic recording with Clifford Benson (Hyperion CDD22027). While Robert Plane and Sophia Rahman do not better this, they do match this excellent standard in their own right, and have their own well articulated points to make about the music, particularly in terms of fluency of line and sensitivity of phrasing.
The other items are less imposing, effective though they may be. The ’Near-Minuet’ (also 1946) probably came from music left over from the Clarinet Sonata, whereas the Rhapsody Quintet of 1919 is another example of English single-movement chamber music from earlier in the century. It is certainly a most beautifully contrived piece, and it is well served by this performance. The Prelude for harp of 1915 is the earliest of all these pieces. Written for one of Howells’ fellow RCM students, Kate Wilson, it turned out to be his only composition for solo harp, which seems a pity, since it is so sophisticated and sensitive in this performance by Alison Nicholls.

Terry Barfoot

see also review by Rob Barnett

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