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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Missa Sabrinensis for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra (1953) [76:10]
Stabat Mater for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra (1965) [51:44]
Janice Watson (sop); Della Jones (mezzo); Martyn Hill (ten); Donald Maxwell (bar); Neill Archer (ten) (Stabat only)
London Symphony Chorus/Stephen Westrop
London Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. Blackheath Concert Halls, London, 7-9 Apr 1994 (Missa Sabrinensis); 10 Apr 1994 (Stabat Mater). DDD
CHANDOS 2for1 CHAN 241-27 [76:10 + 51:44]

 


In the Herbert Howells catalogue there are no works more ambitious in scale, intent and grasp than these two.

Hymnus Paradisi is potent, shorter and has found more performances and recordings. It adroitly balances duration, manner, substance and message - succinct and potent. However Missa Sabrinensis magnificently encapsulates Howells' exuberantly ecstatic absorption in spirituality, celebration, redemptive anguish, high hills radiance and the dazzle of the invincible sun. His is a decidedly un-Protestant stance. The music mediates between Delius and Roman Catholic spirituality but the spiritual dimension is no more intrusive or distracting than is RVW's humanism in works such as Dona Nobis Pacem. The Delius echoes have no linkage with the orchestral miniatures. Instead the music looks from peak to peak at The Song of the High Hills and most specifically at the Mass of Life. This is felt most strongly in the 20 minute Gloria. That movement with its proud brass songsters trailing clouds of glory recalls both Hymnus and the Delius Mass. Its explosive propulsion has not a shred of Victorian fustian about it. It speaks directly to twentieth and twenty first century man and woman in music that is exalted, exciting (try 14.30 onwards in the Missa) and transformational.

Rozhdestvensky and his perfectly balanced team of soloists, choir and orchestra raise the vaulted roof, shake the rafters of our hearts and it is recorded in full-on sound. The Mass is more a celebration of the spirit of the Severn and of Howells' life, of countless sunrises and Ragnarok sunsets, of piercing joy, of the lives of friends and more. Did the composer see the shades of his contemporaries among the pastures, hills and brakes of Severn country: Gurney, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Elgar and so many others. I speculate that spun into this music is the recollection of Howells' surrounded by friends all high on the experience of just having heard the premiere of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. The Missa has a very high quotient of emotionally intense music. The Benedictus provides remission and contrast - a honeyed fulfilled summation that speaks 'as a dream and a forgetting'. Howells recognises that the heart is not designed to carry the relentlessly torrid emotion that is rife in the rest of this extraordinary work.

The experience of hearing the Missa again spirits me back to 1982 and that overpowering revival broadcast on BBC Radio 3 marking the composer's ninetieth birthday. Sir David Willcocks conducted. I found the work extraordinarily moving then. It still is.

The Stabat Mater is noticeably in the same anguished ecstatic idiom but some 25 minutes shorter. Although tense it is not as unremittingly tensile as the Missa. The choirs (tr.1 3.30) groan with references to Vaughan Williams' demons in Pilgrims Progress and the choral moans in Sinfonia Antartica. Howells' diary chronology for the writing of the work starts with an entry on the first anniversary of RVW's death . The Cujus Animam has a musing cortege tread recalling that in Dyson's Quo Vadis. Quis est homo? has a reminiscence of the explosive rush of the Missa's Gloria. The plunging trumpet writing in Sancta Mater is tellingly done and looks to the examples of both Walton and Janáček. Once again Howells often evokes clouds of witness streaming across a sky that stretches along the horizon of eternity. At the grand climactics (1.35) the composer looks to the first movement of Delius's pantheistically driven A Mass of Life.

The Chandos catalogue yields treasure after treasure. Here is another. If you love Hymnus Paradisi and do not already have these CDs then you must get this set. The price cannot bettered, Christopher Palmer's notes are the usual equipoise of mystic percipience and factual meat and the two discs come in a single width case.

This set comes with all texts in full and extended extracts from the Howells diaries tracking progress with each work. It could hardly have been better done. Roll on the Chandos issue of the Howells' orchestral twofer on CHAN 241-20.

I hope that after hearing these two discs either Chandos or another company will feel encouraged to tackle premiere recordings of various other British works of equally compelling substance: John Foulds' World Requiem, Cyril Rootham's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity and Second Symphony and Goossens' Apocalypse.

The Howells works do not merit their neglect and certainly should be heard as an alternative to yet another War Requiem or Gerontius. They ape neither composer and are irrefutably masterworks of the English choral repertoire. What more can the listener ask than to be lifted from the light of common day by Howells' poignant, subtle, sensitive and ecstatic music. That tread towards eternity from 6.00 onwards in the final section (Christe cum sit hunc exire) of the Stabat Mater seems to say it all. After completing this work Howells was to live another eighteen years but after the Stabat Mater nothing of such moment came from his pen.

Rob Barnett



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