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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Rhapsodic Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (1919) [11’31"]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1946) [21’03"]
Prelude for Harp (1915) [5’58"]
A Near-Minuet for Clarinet and Piano (1946) [2’42"]
Sonata No. 3 in E minor for Violin and Piano* (1923) [24’24"]
mobius (Robert Plane, clarinet; Alison Nicholls, harp; Sophia Rahman, piano;*Phillippe Honoré and Lucy Gould, violin; Ashan Pillai, viola; Josephine Knight, cello)
Recorded: St. Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, 1 December 2002 (Rhapsodic Quintet); Potton Hall, Suffolk, 26-27 October 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557188 [66’05"]

I’ve been a great admirer of the music of Herbert Howells for many years. However, in common with many other people, I suspect, I’ve known him chiefly as a composer of church music and for his vocal and orchestral output. So this admirable CD, made in association with the Herbert Howells Society, is extremely welcome.

As the distinguished critic and commentator Michael Kennedy has observed in a typically perceptive phrase, "In English music of the 20th century Herbert Howells lurks on the boundary between greatness and immense talent." I don’t think that any of the music here recorded could be classified as "great" – unlike Howells’ Collegium Regale canticles or his masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi. However, there’s a great deal of splendid craftsmanship and genuine melodic inspiration to admire and enjoy here.

The earliest work, the Prelude for Harp, is perhaps the least memorable. Indeed, Andrew Burn relates in his most interesting notes that when a student harpist played it through to Howells in 1973 he couldn’t remember writing the piece. It is, as Burn says, "a haunting miniature, full of modal melancholy" but I don’t find there’s anything exceptional about it.

The Rhapsodic Quintet is much better. Cast in one movement, there is a good deal of strong music early on as well as some more puckish material. The best music, to my mind, comes in the last four minutes or so when the mood becomes slower and much more reflective. This passage is well described by Andrew Burn as "a closing paragraph of rapt, serene beauty." To my ears it’s gorgeous and unmistakeably English. The whole piece, in which Howells integrates the clarinet splendidly with the strings, receives an assured and sympathetic performance from Robert Plane and his colleagues.

The third Violin Sonata followed four years later. As Paul Spicer points out in his biography of Howells the second sonata had been received rather coolly by critics at its première in 1919 and Howells withdrew it. Arguably, therefore, the composition of a successor was something of an act of courage. The piece is dedicated to Albert Sammons (did he ever play it, I wonder?) and it was the fruit of a visit to Canada where Howells was inspired by the sight of the Rocky Mountains. The music certainly seems to evoke wide open spaces and grand vistas, especially in the first and last of its three movements. The first movement has many generous lyric impulses and also a good deal of strong rhetoric. It’s easy to imagine Sammons, with his big tone, playing this music. The short, pithy middle movement alternates passages where the violinist is required to play pizzicato with others where the bow is employed. I must confess that I found this movement to be less inspired. The finale is bracing and is strongly projected by Phillippe Honoré, very ably supported by Sophia Rahman. At the end Howells reprises the material with which the first movement began. In summary, this is a very interesting piece and it is well served by the present performers.

The Clarinet Sonata was written for Frederick Thurston. Andrew Burn conjectures that the piece may be a reworking of an earlier sonata for oboe, which Howells had withdrawn following criticism by Leon Goossens. The first of the two movements opens with a long, rhapsodic theme for the clarinet over gently undulating piano figurations. From around 1’50" the music has greater vitality. There are several lovely, lyrical episodes but, like the Rhapsodic Quintet, this is music with backbone. The second movement is very energetic, with driving percussive rhythms. For much of the movement the piano part is characterised by stamping rhythms over which the clarinet part is flamboyant and extrovert. I’ve not experienced anything like this in what I’ve heard of Howells’ output. Around 7’20" we encounter a much more reflective passage, introduced by the piano (beautifully played here) and answered, with equal feeling, by the clarinettist. There’s one final, extrovert flourish to finish the work emphatically.

The short Near-Minuet may have been intended as the middle movement of the sonata. If so, I think Howells was right to discard it for it breaks the tension. However, by programming your CD player you can insert this movement, as I did once to experiment, and see what you think.

The members of mobius, an ensemble new to me, play all these pieces extremely well and with fine feeling. They are recorded in good sound and, as I’ve said, Andrew Burn provides informative notes which introduce very well music that will be unfamiliar to most listeners. This illuminating CD casts fresh light on a composer who was much more than a writer of church music. I enjoyed it very much and I strongly recommend it to fellow enthusiasts for English music.

John Quinn

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Terry Barfoot

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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