Pianist and composer, the London-born and now
Italian resident Christopher Howell has recorded a set of his
own compositions titled Cypresses. Howell explains, “These
pieces are among many written over a period of almost ten years,
not all originally in their present form or with their present
titles.” It seems that there is no significance behind the
name Cypresses. They composer tells us that it, “…may
be taken as consistent with the generally dark colouring of
the music.” That said, while there is a general underlying
disposition of sadness and yearning in these well crafted miniatures
I didn’t find them predominantly dark in mood.
The opening Barcarolle has a nocturnal
feel. It is a sultry mood painting of a warm summer night in
a quiet city. Not unlike a J.S. Bach Prelude the Magnificat
has a slight jazzy feel, whether consciously or not, in the
manner of Jacques Loussier. Poignancy and tenderness frame a
weightier central section in the Threnody and the very
brief Consolation has a warm passionate feel reminding
me of a lullaby.
I enjoyed the light and uplifting piece Spring
Cypresses and also the serious temperament of An Easter
Flower Gift with its undercurrent of tension. With charming
rusticity I found the Valse Triste evocative of lazy
summer days in verdant countryside. After the initial shock
and stress of a thunderstorm the Summer Cypresses soon
gives way to a scene of freshness and clarity and the feelings
Redolent of American Civil War folk-songs the
piece Those Endearing Young Charms is gentle and melodic.
It Was Long Ago is haunting and mysterious yet the mood
of romance is never far away. The bucolic Hurrahing in Harvest
is evocative of children playing in the cornfields with
raucous abandon. A slight underlying anxiety in Autumn Cypresses
is perhaps an anticipation of bad news that contrasts with
the uplifting and vigorous romp of the Gloria.
Despite the sacred connotations of its title
the melodic piece Calvary reminded me of the bustling
excitement of a Californian town during the American gold rush.
With I Was Not Ever Thus I could visualize painting flowers
for a still life drawing. I experienced the Berceuse
as calm and meditative and the miniature Paean suggested
kite flying in a fresh and blustery autumn wind.
The scene of frost and ice over the pasture permeates
through Winter Cypresses however the warm comfort of
the farm house is never far way. Radiating cheerfulness the
invigorating miniature Joy Shall Be Yours evokes a celebration
of good news with a contrasting episode of contemplation. The
final Cypress titled Too Late is poignant and
reflective perhaps mirroring the mood of a painful parting after
a love affair.
I congratulate the versatile Christopher Howell
for composing and performing these accessible and appealing
piano miniatures. As soloist Howell conveys his intentions to
the listener with playing of unquenchable enthusiasm, considerable
assurance and an impressive naturalness. In the 1980s I would
regularly attend BBC Philharmonic concerts as part of the studio
audience at the BBC New Broadcasting House, Manchester. These
concerts recorded in front of an invited audience would often
include world première performances of mainly contemporary works.
Hearing these first recordings of Howell’s Cypresses
reminded me just how thrilling it is to hear new works leaving
me eager for more.
And a further perspective from Rob Barnett
If you are a British music enthusiast you might
well recall the name of Christopher Howell from an earlyish
CD of the piano music of Cyril Scott. Since then he has
devoted much of his time to the appraisal and advocacy of the
music of Stanford; indeed in this same group of Sheva releases
he can be heard in an original and tangy anthology of Stanford's
solo piano music review.
I am rather sorry to have missed reviewing his CD of the Stanford
cello sonatas; one in which he collaborated with cellist Alison
Quite apart from Howell’s dedication to the music
of the Dublin-born Stanford, he is a composer in his own right.
This is practically the first chance we have had to hear it
and, what’s more, the composer playing it. The Cypresses
sequence is tonal, maybe tending towards the subdued and
certainly it’s very pleasing. This group of twenty pieces was
not written or planned as a sequence. Cypresses (nothing
to do with Dvořák) seemed a fitting title although the
moods are far more wide-ranging than the marmoreal and crepuscular.
If the names have anything to do with it it's worth noting that
there are four pieces in which the word ‘Cypresses’ appears,
one for each of the four seasons. They are distributed with
some rough equality of proportion through the twenty numbers.
There is a Medtnerian Barcarolle, a Magnificat that
flanks with graceful fugal Handelian patterning a plangent dignified
core. The Threnody is redolent of early Bridge in repose.
It is followed by a serene and unassertive Consolation.
Spring Cypresses seems to suggest nodding trees stirred
by a summer breeze. An Easter Flower Gift is a slowly
tolling Rachmaninovian meditation. Summer Cypresses has
a bell-clear ringing heroism about it as well as a cantabile
underpinning. In this the spirit of the more heroic Rachmaninov
Etude-Tableaux is not far away. Those Endearing Young
Charms and It was Long Ago are simple narrative tales
with the first one carrying a Grainger-like flavour and the
second a darkling ballad tone. The ambling peace of Hurrahing
in Harvest is followed by Gloria and Calvary
each of which have echoes of primitive ‘tin tabernacle’ hymns.
In fact hymns appear to be something of a theme across these
twenty pieces. When Howell is in dramatic mode the music has
a power that reminded me of another contemporary tonalist, Lionel
Sainsbury. Many of these pieces coast close to the beckoning
shoals of piano stool sentimentality but then very often surprise
you by striking out into other realms - often steeped in romantic
rhetoric. Though the composer appears to reject the suggestion
I am left wondering about a biographical schema to this group.
This is a pleasingly accessible if generally
subdued sequence. The candidly emotional melodic writing cannot
disguise the inventive and distinctive fibre of the this music.
Howell is a reviewer for MusicWeb International