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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Howells from Hereford
Te Deum and Jubilate (Collegium Regale) (1944) [11:31]
O pray for the peace of Jerusalem No.1 of Four Anthems (1941) [6:21]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Gloucester Service) (1946) [10:30]
We have heard with our ears No.2 of Four Anthem (1941) [4:36]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Hereford Service) (1969) [8:47]
Like as the hart No.3 of Four Anthems (1941) [6:07]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Worcester Service) (1951) [8:44]
Let God arise No.4 of Four Anthems (1941) [8:20]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Regale) (1946) [8:33]
The Choir of Hereford Cathedral/Geraint Bowen
Peter Dyke (organ)
rec. 20-22 January 2009, Hereford Cathedral
REGENT REGCD316 [74:12]
Experience Classicsonline

This is an essential CD for all Howells enthusiasts as well as being a fine introduction to listeners who are not familiar with the composer's liturgical music. There are a number of other discs that explore the extensive repertoire of church music written by Herbert Howells, including the Complete Morning and Evening Canticles on the Priory label. However, it is good to have the works written for the Three Choirs towns presented on a single CD. Additionally the Four Anthems from the early part of 1941 are a rare treat. Finally, the canticles written for King's College, Cambridge complete an excellent selection of works.

Many people would argue that it is with church music that Herbert Howells has retained his name in the canon of British music. I would dissent from that view and hold up the procession of fine chamber works and orchestral music that has been championed by various CD labels and artists over the past decade or so. Yet, I take the point. For most people, it is the liturgical music and to a lesser extent the anthems that will have been a part of their 'cathedral' experience over the years. If they are, or have been in an Anglican church-choir they can hardly fail to have met some, if not all, of these works.  
The music on this CD is associated with three areas of the country - the Three Choirs Festival towns, Cheltenham and Cambridge. Paul Spicer reminds us that each of these places was very important in the life of the composer.

During the Second World War Howells took over the post of organist at St John's College, Cambridge whilst Robin Orr, the incumbent, was off on active service. It is known that Howells was never happier than during these years. Spicer tells the story of how in 1943 Dean Eric Milner-White of King's College presented Howells and Patrick Hadley with a challenge to write a new setting of the Te Deum. Howells accepted: Hadley declined. The Collegium Regale Te Deum was duly heard at King's College in 1944 and Howells collected his bet - one Guinea (£1.05p) The setting of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis followed in 1945. It was the first in what was to become a major series of works inspired by various cathedrals in England.

The Four Anthems were composed in Cheltenham during 1941. Howells had moved here after the family home in Barnes had been bombed. Typically he was to commute between Cheltenham and the Royal College of Music where he had a 'bedroom' in the basement. However over the New Year period of 1940/41 they were snowed in at Cheltenham and Howells decided to try to compose a new work each day - until the thaw came. One of the results of this burst of industry was the Four Anthems, originally entitled In Time of War. Interestingly the anthem that was written on the 6th January, Ponder my words, was subsequently lost: it was replaced by Let God arise. These are fine pieces and certainly show every sign of inspiration and nothing of haste. It is great to have all four of them on this one recording.

The main event on this CD is the three fine sets of Canticles for Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester (alphabetical order!). Few readers will be unaware of the importance of this great festival in the lives of countless musicians - both from the area and without. Howells had a long association with the Festival, from the time that he was studying with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, through the revelatory premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia down to the performance of Howells's own masterpieces Hymnus Paradisi and Missa Sabrinensis. It is hardly surprising that he chose to compose three of his finest settings of the 'Mag. and Nunc Dim' for 'his' cathedrals.

All three of these works reveal a mature composer who was able to synthesise the traditions of Anglican choral music with his own personal impressionistic language. I have often felt that the Missa Sabrinensis is less of a religious work than a massive tone poem evoking the Severn and surrounding landscape along with the procession of history and achievement of this haunting land. Without wishing to minimise the obvious Christian impact of the settings of these three canticles, I suggest that in them we feel the Three Choirs country landscape as much as the religious sentiment. It may simply be that they are part and parcel of the same tradition.

For the record the Canticles for Gloucester were composed in 1946, for Worcester in 1951 and for Hereford as late as 1969.

I have always loved Hereford - both the Cathedral and the town. It seems to me to be the most unspoilt of the Three Choirs venues, although I concede that many people would question my judgement. The present recording captures much of the atmosphere of this great building and, as the CD refers, to its 'radiant acoustic'.

The liner notes are written by the Howells scholar Paul Spicer and provides a detailed and informative introduction to these works. My only slight criticism was that I had to hunt around on the net and in the text to find the dates of these pieces. Geraint Bowen directs a confident and competent choir that is completely at home with Herbert Howells' music.

John France


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