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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Sir Patrick Spens, Op. 23 (1917)* [19:49]
Hymnus Paradisi (1938/1949) # [45:01]
Claire Rutter (soprano)#; Katy Butler (soprano)#; James Gilchrist (tenor)*#; Roderick Williams (baritone)#
The Bach Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 16-17 September 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570352 [65:12]

This is an extremely important release for two reasons. Firstly, it contains the first-ever recording of the first work for chorus and orchestra composed by Herbert Howells. Secondly, it brings to the catalogue a fine new performance of Howells’ supreme masterpiece, and one of the finest of all English choral works, Hymnus Paradisi.
My colleague, John France, has already written in detail and with much enthusiasm about Sir Patrick Spens and I can do no better than refer readers to his comments about a work that this CD has brought to life for me, as it did for him. In brief, the piece, which is a setting of an old Scots ballad, was written in 1917 but was not immediately performed. Indeed, Andrew Burn tells us in his very informative notes, that it was not until 1926 that the work was published. It then received a solitary performance in 1930 and, so far as is known, lay unperformed and in complete obscurity until this present recording. However, Paul Spicer states in his 1998 biography of the composer that it was one of the pieces that Howells chose to submit for his B. Mus. Degree at Oxford in 1934. Intriguingly, in his 1992 book on Howells, Christopher Palmer reproduces a list of works by Howells that the composer himself drew up in 1919 and in this he lists two settings of the ballad, the present one and another for four solo voices, string quartet and piano. Whether that smaller-scale setting has survived and whether the two versions share common musical material I do not know.
Perhaps it’s also worth quoting Howells himself on the subject of the choral/orchestral setting. Palmer reproduces an extract from an interview that Howells gave to the periodical, The Music Teacher, in December 1922. in which he commented thus: “The setting of Sir Patrick Spens, for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, was done with a main intention of getting through the narrative with as great a saving of time as can ever be effected where music makes an attempt at saddling itself on words ….. I wanted to set Sir Patrick with the best possible attempt at this essential swiftness of action; … .All my tunes therefore have the directness of simple folktunes; the choral technique is founded on the need for swift action; there is no word-repetition, and very little suggestion of anything approaching contrapuntal treatment. The voices are concerned with directness and speed in conveying the narrative; the vividness and suggestions of more purely musical sorts are left to the orchestra. The setting takes 16 minutes to sing.” (Christopher Palmer: Herbert Howells - A Centenary Celebration. (London, 1992), pp 438-9).
From reading the above you might get the impression that the piece is pretty breathless and dramatic, and you’d be right. The fact that this recorded performance takes a bit longer than Howells’ estimate – remember, he’d not heard it in performance at the time he wrote those remarks – is irrelevant. The piece is an astonishing feat of musical compression. The poem runs to twenty-six short four-line stanzas and, as Howells suggests, the action fairly flies by. As Andrew Burn points out, he had written nothing on such a scale up to that point and what impresses right from the start is the assurance and boldness with which Howells handles his forces. It may be a piece of relatively short duration but it’s in all other respects a Big Piece.
Burn proposes that Howells’ model was The Revenge by his teacher, Stanford, a work that has itself achieved a first recording recently. Having heard both pieces I would have to say that Sir Patrick Spens strikes me as the more interesting work. For all Howells’ relative inexperience he shows the greater individuality, the greater sense of drama, the greater dynamism. In a nutshell, his is the more exciting piece. It also owes a considerable debt to Vaughan Williams’ then-recent Sea Symphony – and why not? Having just spent several months rehearsing and performing Sea Symphony I’m perhaps more conscious than I would otherwise be of the extent to which Howells’ piece breathes the same air. But one thing should be said: by the time Sea Symphony appeared Vaughan Williams already had behind him an appreciable, if shorter, Whitman setting for chorus and orchestra in the shape of Toward the Unknown Region. Howells had no such precursor, which makes Sir Patrick Spens all the more remarkable.
One could probably unpick the work and find passages where the musical seams show. I’ll leave that to other, more expert judges. It’s obviously an early work when compared to the mature masterpiece that sits beside it on this CD and at first hearing the sound-world of Hymnus seems a long way away. But listen a little more closely and perhaps that’s not the case. For example, the passage for baritone with unaccompanied chorus behind him, “For I ha’e brought as much white money” (4:47 – 5:30) contains, to my ears, definite pre-echoes of Hymnus. Later in the piece, when the storm erupts around the ship in which Spens and his men are voyaging, Howells may orchestrate somewhat thickly but the sounds he conjures up are vivid and exciting and the music has genuine dramatic impetus and bite.
For me, he saves the best till last. The last five stanzas depict the mourning for Spens and his crew, chiefly by their womenfolk (from 12:58). Forget influences of Stanford, Vaughan Williams or anyone else. These paragraphs are pure, unadulterated Howells. Perhaps not yet the Howells of Hymnus, but still a genuine, eloquent musical craftsman who knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it and one who is capable of writing music of genuine feeling.
The piece receives a committed, dashing performance. Roderick Williams, as the eponymous hero, sings with his customary distinction. It will be noted that, in writing of the piece, Howells referred only to the baritone soloist. Perhaps he intended that the other two soloists should be drawn from the choir. If so, James Gilchrist, as the crew member with a premonition of doom, represents luxury casting. He sings very well and Katy Butler makes a favourable impression with her short but important – and high-lying – solo. David Hill whips up a real storm with his conducting and inspires the choir and orchestra to perform fervently. Realistically, I doubt Sir Patrick Spens will ever become established as a repertoire piece but its utter neglect up to now is unjustifiable and it deserves to be much better known. This splendid first recording gives it an excellent chance of proper appreciation at long last.
Hymnus Paradisi, by contrast, is one of Howells’s best-known works. In my opinion this visionary masterpiece ranks with Gerontius and a handful of others in the pantheon of truly great English choral works. I came to know it some forty years ago through another recording by the Bach Choir, the very first recording made of it, conducted by Sir David Willcocks for EMI. I found that it yielded its secrets only gradually but it was worth persevering for this is a work of great richness and feeling. Whenever I listen to it I feel that this is music that had to be written – and, of course, as we know, the piece was Howells’ way of working out some of his grief at the tragic death in childhood of his son, Michael. Returning to the Willcocks recording for comparisons I’ve been forcefully reminded of its stature. The sound is full-blooded, as was EMI’s wont at that time (1970) and Willcocks obtained passionate playing from the New Philharmonia and singing of equal commitment from his choir. He also scores over all the other recordings I’ve heard. by using what was then his “other” choir, King’s College, Cambridge, as the semi-chorus and the contrast between their timbre and that of the main chorus is telling. As soloists Willcocks has the wonderful Heather Harper and also Robert Tear, happily caught in the days before his voice developed the wide vibrato that made him unattractive to my ears.
This new Naxos is a very strong competitor. The choir and orchestra are more set back from the microphones in comparison with the EMI recording and many will prefer that more natural concert hall perspective. The choir sings very well indeed for David Hill and the orchestra plays very well. Howells’ textures are often very complex and one sometime strains to hear details but even so I must say that I thought the BSO violins sounded a bit underpowered at times. One way in which the Naxos recording beats the EMI version is by achieving a much better – but not unnatural - separation between the two choirs in the passages where Howells divides his chorus.
Hill has two very good soloists. Claire Rutter has a most demanding part to deliver – Howells requires his soprano to soar ecstatically for long stretches at a time – and she does very well indeed. I hear a wider vibrato than Heather Harper employs but not to any degree that troubles me. She certainly has the power to ride the huge climaxes but she’s also sensitive in the many quieter, more reflective stretches of the work. James Gilchrist is an admirable partner for her. His clear, often plangent tone is well suited to the music, nowhere more so than in the fifth movement, ‘I heard a voice from heaven’. I like his voice every time I hear it and here once again he sings with his usual taste and refinement but, like Miss Rutter, he has sufficient power, and a touch of steel, in his voice to be able to assert himself at climactic moments. Just once does he display fallibility. Towards the very end, just after cue 74 in the vocal score, Howells gives the tenor an unreasonably long line to sing at a slow tempo on the word “Alleluia”. Perhaps not surprisingly Gilchrist needs to take a breath before the last two sustained notes of the phrase but it’s such a pity to break up the phrase. When I turned to the Willcocks recording. I found that Tear’s lungs also are defeated by Howells’s demands here and he takes a breath at the same point but he adopts a much better solution. He breaks the phrase into two separate “alleluias” rather than, as Gilchrist does, breaking and resuming the one word. It’s a small blemish indeed in a fine performance by Gilchrist; unfortunately it comes at a telling juncture in the score.
But if that’s the only criticism I have of this performance – and it is – then it most certainly shouldn’t stand in the way of an unqualified recommendation of this new recording of this great work. David Hill quite clearly has the measure of the score and he inspires his performers to transcend the many difficulties that it contains and to deliver a performance that burns with conviction, not just in the many Big Moments but also in this radiant work’s profusion of sublimely beautiful passages. As the last glowing bars die away quietly at the end of this performance one senses that one has had a rather special artistic experience and that’s as it should be after hearing Hymnus Paradisi.
All admirers of Howells will be grateful to Naxos for letting us hear Sir Patrick Spens at long last. They should be equally grateful for a dedicated and eloquent performance of Hymnus Paradisi. This distinguished release is an undoubted feather in the Naxos cap.
John Quinn

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