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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Suite: The Bs Op.13 (Overture: Bublum; Lament: Bartholomew; Scherzo: Blissy; 'Mazurka' alias 'Minuet': Bunny; March: Benjee) [32:22]
Three Dances for Violin and Orchestra Op. 7 [14:31]
In Green Ways Op.43 (Under the Greenwood Tree; The Goat Paths; Merry Margaret; Wanderer's Night Song; On the Merry First of May) [18:12]
Lydia Mordkovitch, violin
Yvonne Kenny, soprano
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
Rec. Blackheath Halls, London, 27-28 July 1996
CHANDOS CHAN 9557 [65:03]


The 32-minute suite presents five of Howells RCM friends ‘pictured within’. There is a delight in creation in this music and the composer’s self-awareness of powers and confidence at high noon. The idiom is a little like Vaughan Williams but always brighter and more ecstatically impressionistic. Bublum is Howells himself - the composer like Strauss, Elgar and Holbrooke not shrinking from self-portraiture. The music is alive with bustle and delirium. It catches a milieu unknowingly on the edge of events that would tread down a generation, destroy many of the friends and transform the others. Bartholomew is Gurney - this movement should surely be played as you read Michael Hurd's biography. The picture is one of pensiveness and lyrical gentleness. The micro-scherzo Blissy refers to Arthur Bliss and its cheery ebullience hints at Bliss's music. Bliss was to find some release from the wartime nightmares in his Symphony Morning Heroes. Bunny was Francis Purcell Warren, a reputedly excellent violist. Warren was killed at the battle of Mons and Howells wrote, as a loving memorial, his Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra. This is glorious in the hands of Boult (on a Lyrita LP SRCS 69, never reissued, wouldn’t you know) but also very good with Hickox's on Chandos CHAN 9161. The Benjee movement refers to the irrepressible Arthur Benjamin who himself wrote a Pastoral Rhapsody for string quartet and who flew for the RFC. He was finally shot down over enemy trenches and imprisoned in Germany. The friends seem arm in arm in the final moments the world at their all-conquering and unknowing feet: a ‘Testament of Youth’ indeed.

The Three Dances are from 1915. The first and last are folksily eager and bright-eyed, sounding at times like Latvian folk music as in Janis Ivanovs Violin Concerto. This work is not as dry as RVW’s Concerto Academico or Holst's Double Concerto; certainly not as desiccated as the outer movements of the Finzi Violin Concerto (Chandos, Tasmin Little). It is a closer kin to the RVW Lark Ascending and to Julius Harrison's Bredon Hill (how long O Lord how long?). The quasi lento is deeply poignant music reaching towards the profundity and joy-in-tears best conveyed by Finzi's Introit.

The orchestral cycle In Green Ways is given plenty of operatic ‘welly’ by Yvonne Kenny. I wondered whether this was quite the sensitive approach the words demanded especially in Under The Greenwood Tree. But then the first song is one of extroversion and excitement. It is followed by the ‘centre of gravity’ of the cycle the murmuring soliloquising pastoral philosophising of James Stephens Goat Paths. Hearing the climactic statement of the words ‘to the deeper quietude’ which looks to the shattering expressive climaxes of Hymnus Paradisi. Merry Margaret glints and swoons in rapturous melisma. The orchestral piano ripples too paralleling Corydon’s Dance and Scherzo - In Arden. Wanderers Nightsong might almost refer to Ivor Gurney's nocturnal pilgrimages across the Gloucestershire and Cotswold fields - a touch of Samuel Barber here too. Intriguing that Goethe, a German poet, should be an acceptable voice in the depths of 1915. The last song recaptures the brilliance of Scherzo - in Arden.

As the Pastoral Rhapsody and the Threnody were the gems of the first volume the highlights here are Goats Path, the lento from the Three Dances and the prescient Bartholomew lament from The Bs.

Essential listening for pursuers of the English pastoral vein: stunningly performed and recorded.
Rob Barnett

see also review by Hubert Culot

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