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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Choral Music
A Sequence for St. Michael (1961) [10’48"]
A Hymn for St. Cecilia (1961) [3’11"]
O pray for the peace of Jerusalem (1941) No. I of Four Anthems [7’08"]
Te Deum ‘St. George’s, Windsor’ (1952) [10’42"]
Benedictus ‘St. George’s, Windsor’ (1952) [6’28"]
I love all beauteous things (1977) [6’24"]
Salve Regina (1915) No. 4 of Four Anthems of the Blessed Virgin Mary [4’35"]
Magnificat ‘New College, Oxford’ (1949) [6’12"]
Nunc dimittis ‘New College, Oxford’ (1949) [3’04"]
A Spotless Rose (1919) No.2 of Three Carol-Anthems [3’04"]
Sing lullaby (1920) No. 3 of Three Carol-Anthems [3’23"]
Here is the little door (1918) No. 1 of Three Carol-Anthems [3’43"]
Magnificat ‘Collegium Regale’ (1945) [5’12"]
Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’ (1945) [4’06"]
The Choir of Wells Cathedral/Malcolm Archer
Rupert Gough (organ)
rec. Wells Cathedral, Somerset, 21-24 June 2004
HYPERION CDA67494 [79’34"]

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This CD is Malcolm Archer’s farewell recording from Wells Cathedral. Shortly after it was made, in September 2004, he succeeded John Scott as Organist of another of Hyperion’s regular recording venues, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Archer could scarcely have given us a finer envoi than this well-chosen and marvellously executed selection of church music by Herbert Howells.

One thing that strikes the listener straightaway is the welcome juxtaposition of familiar Howells with some pieces of his that are less often heard. So, for example, the masterly evening canticles written for King’s College, Cambridge rightfully take their place in the collection but we hear also the set written for New College, Oxford just four years later. I’m delighted too that the fine morning canticles composed for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor get a hearing. In fact, this latter setting only received its European première recording as recently as February 2003 in the excellent series of discs from Priory that gave us all Howells’ morning and evening canticles. Let me say straightaway that the Wells choir need not fear comparison with The Collegiate Singers who sing on the Priory series. Both choirs are first class. Some listeners may have a preference for the Wells performances since these are sung by a choir including boy trebles and male altos, as Howells would have expected, whereas the Collegiate Singers includes women’s voices. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed both versions.

This CD is graced by a perceptive and informative note by the conductor and biographer of Howells, Paul Spicer. As Spicer reminds us, Howells composed much of his church music, and the canticle settings in particular, with the acoustical properties of the church for which each was composed very much in mind. Thus, the New College ‘Mag and Nunc’ were written with a smaller acoustic in mind than Howell’s two preceding services, those composed for King’s Cambridge and Gloucester Cathedral. At the risk of making an obvious point, however, these settings can work perfectly well in other acoustics, as Malcolm Archer proves on this very disc.

The notes include a touching little vignette of Howells, the perfectionist, visiting St. Albans Cathedral specifically to soak up the building and its acoustics before penning a piece he’d been asked to write for the choir there. As Howells put it "one day I, as it were, sneaked into the Cathedral at St Albans because I hadn’t been in it for nearly fifty years. And there I sat hoping that no one would recognise the chap who was going to write some music for them and who wanted to hear the choir, but more than that, I wanted to hear what it felt like – the feeling of that room in which something of mine was going to be sung." The result, included here, was I love all beauteous things, a wonderful, sensuous setting of a poem by Robert Bridges. This piece demonstrates the rich, luxuriant chromatic harmonic style of late Howells. Though it’s not one of his best-known pieces it strikes me as being quintessential Howells, a creation of great beauty. Archer and his singers do it very well indeed.

Much better known by far are the Three Carol-Anthems. I wonder why they are not ordered in chronological order here, even thought they are grouped together. No matter. The performances are most satisfying. The ubiquitous A Spotless Rose is given a flowing, easeful performance and I particularly enjoyed the account of my own favourite in the set, Here is the little door. In this lovely miniature Howells combines the gentle lyricism that characterises the two companion settings with some more dramatic gestures appropriate to Frances Chesterton’s evocative poem.

Every performance on this CD is of the highest quality. Let me single out just a couple more. The early Salve Regina was written for R.R. Terry and the choir at Westminster Cathedral for whom Vaughan Williams wrote his Mass in G minor. Howells’ chaste setting, like Vaughan Williams’ Mass, is inspired by sixteenth- century polyphony, and none the worse for that. Incidentally, though he modestly refrains from advertising the fact in his note, it was Paul Spicer who, with the Finzi Singers, made the first recording of this piece back in 1991 (Chandos CHAN 9021.) This latest recording is just as successful.

At the opposite end of the pole, as it were, is the masterly A Sequence for St. Michael, with which the programme opens. As Paul Spicer says, this is a big piece. It opens very dramatically indeed and the Wells choir (and organist, Rupert Gough) project this passage arrestingly. The central section is the contemplative heart of the piece and features a plangent tenor solo, which is well taken, before the work unwinds in a lyrical yet strong ending. It’s a fine work and it receives a fine performance.

The singing of the Wells choir gives consistent pleasure. They are well balanced and blended. Though they are not afraid to sing out when called upon to do so they are also sensitive to softer dynamics. Finally, and crucially, their diction is excellent. There are a number of solos in various pieces and all are well taken by members of the choir. All this is testimony to the excellent work done by Malcolm Archer in his time at Wells. I’m sure he’ll be missed. Almost all the items ion the programme feature organ accompaniments and these are expertly and sensitively played by the cathedral’s assistant organist, Rupert Gough. He makes a fine and telling contribution to the success of this enterprise. As ever, Hyperion’s production values are of the highest order. I’ve already referred to Paul Spicer’s note, which is a model of its kind. Full texts are also provided. Finally, the recorded sound is excellent. The choir is well reported as is the organ and the balance between singers and organ is wholly satisfactory.

In summary, this is an outstanding disc. It presents a most useful single-disc survey of a part of the enormous contribution made by Herbert Howells to the music of the English church. The performances are first class and a fitting testament to Malcolm Archer’s period in Somerset. I have enjoyed this disc very much indeed and I recommend it without reservation.

John Quinn

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