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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Hymnus Paradisi (Preludio; Requiem aeternam; The Lord is my Shepherd; Sanctus: I will lift up mine eyes; I Heard a Voice from Heaven; Holy is the True Light) * [46:42]
A Kent Yeoman's Wooing Song† [18:21]
Joan Rodgers soprano*†; Anthony Rolfe Johnson tenor*; Bruce Ogston baritone†
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
Rec: All Saints Church, Tooting, London, 2-3, 7 November 1998
CHANDOS CHAN 9744 [65:01]


Hymnus Paradisi is a core work of the English choral tradition and, more to the point, much loved. It inhabits realms of exultation and exaltation. It is a concise and quintessential concentration of elements from the first section of Delius's A Mass of Life and, slightly further afield, from Rosenberg's Symphony No. 4 Johannes Uppenbarelse with its rapturously pealing 'alleluias' their own echo of Howells' Glory is the True Light.

If a lachrymose and not mawkish melancholy charatcerises Hymnus Paradisi, a bluff and bucolic voice radiates from A Kent Yeoman's Wooing Song. Here the exemplars are Vaughan Williams's Tunning of Elinor Rumming and My Pretty Bess (Five Tudor Portraits) and the merry or serenading episodes from Sir John in Love as well as the Wedding Scene from Patrick Hadley's The Hills.

We are spoilt for choice with three mainstream labels offering easy access to Hymnus. I have discounted the deleted Carlton BBC Radio Classics version and the Baltic version on the Jade label. Each of the three currently on the shelves is differently coupled. Hyperion proffers the only recording of the subdued English Mass. The Willcocks on EMI Classics (CDM 5 67119 2) is strongly paired with Boult's thunderously declamatory 1974 recording of the Concerto for String Orchestra.

Hyperion's version is very cleanly recorded and is more open and lucid in sound than the warmly cloaked Chandos. It is good and Julie Kennard's bell-like voice is to be preferred to the animated Joan Rodgers whose tight fast vibrato is certainly affecting. Kennard really is joyously clear. Heather Harper is a favourite singer (outstanding in the Chandos recording of Hamilton Harty's Ode and Children of Lir) but perhaps her more mature-sounding and fuller soprano - complete with controlled wider vibrato will scare off some. The best choral singing across the three is that of Willcocks' Bach Choir and Choir of King's College - listen to the fluid way they negotiate the Requiem Aeternam.

None of these versions is poor - far from it. Willcocks is however in analogue sound with a constant discreet hiss. Tear's nasal tenor is an acquired taste but this is one of his best recordings. Rolfe Johnson sounds richer-toned than John Mark Ainsley yet Handley's Julie Kennard is not to be missed.

All these discs are generously packed with a delightful pairing. The English Mass is the lowest keyed. The Concerto for Strings is superb in Boult's and the LPO's hands. The Kent Yeomans's Wooing Song is rare yet is the shortest coupling. It shows a fascinatingly extrovert facet to Howells' genius. It is also the only recording as is the Hyperion/Handley English Mass.

Pushed to make a recommendation for the Hymnus alone I would go for the Handley on Hyperion. Taking a more composite hybrid judgement based on coupling I would lean towards the Willcocks. That's for today - tomorrow I might easily go for the Hickox on Chandos. It is after all a very fine version with many strengths.

Rob Barnett

see also review by Hubert Culot

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