Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
A Sequence for St Michael (1961) [10:02]
By the Waters of Babylon, from Psalm 137 (1917) [10:11]
A Spotless Rose (c.1919) [3:24]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Gloucester) (1946) [11:26]
Psalm 142 (1974) [4:14]
A Grace for 10 Downing Street (1972) [2:29]
One Thing Have I Desired (1968) [5:38]
Like as the Hart (1941) [5:50]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense) (1956/1966) [7:33]
Salve Regina (1915) [4:44]
Collegium Regale: Te Deum (1945) [9:01]
Paul Whelan (baritone), David Adams (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Timothy Ravalde (organ) The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 9-10 January, 13-14 July 2009, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10587 [75:33]

There are at least four excellent reasons why this CD should be at the top of the list for all Herbert Howells enthusiasts.

The first is that the music is superbly sung by the well-known and highly respected Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. I guess that for many folk this choir is a little in the shadow of the better known outfit at King’s College! However, a brief look at their current catalogue reveals a stunning programme of music, much of which is British. Many listeners will already have the Naxos recordings of choral music by Walton, Berkeley, Rubbra and Howells. Yet their range of singing is not limited to the English classics and includes major works by Haydn, Liszt and Duruflé. However, the present CD on the Chandos label is the first (I hope) in a new signing deal for the choir. For those listeners who have followed the choir’s progress over the years, with their musical directors, George Guest and Christopher Robinson, it gives a fine opportunity to hear Andrew Nethsingha in charge of proceedings. Certainly, based on this CD, they will not be disappointed. Soloists, both singers and instrumentalists, add value to a series of excellent performances.

Secondly, a good reason for rushing out to the record shop and buying this CD is the excellent balance of the programme. This disc presents three major strands - well established repertoire, some lesser known works and, perhaps most excitingly, some first performances. Two old favourites are given: ‘Like as the Hart’ and ‘A Spotless Rose’. The former is the last of the wartime Four Anthems which were written in Cheltenham in 1941. This is a justifiably popular piece with its cool mood that lies somewhere, as the programme notes suggest, between the cathedral and the jazz club. ‘A Spotless Rose’ is, like Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ a near perfect example of the fusion of words and music.

The Salve Regina is an early piece: there are some nine of ten versions of this work available in the CD catalogues. The piece was composed for Richard Terry and the choir at Westminster Cathedral. It is one of Four Anthems to the Blessed Virgin and was completed in 1915. Written in six-parts it has a solo boy treble held in reserve for the closing bars. It is a piece of haunting beauty.

A number of other works that are perhaps less well known include The Sequence for St Michael, which is a setting of a Medieval Latin text written by Alcuin and translated by the scholar Helen Waddell. This is a four-part motet with organ accompaniment and written as a commission for St John’s College in 1961 to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the founding of the College. Its complexity explores a variety of textures including a central section for solo tenor. In fact, it is almost a cantata in its concept. Some of this music is very beautiful and some is terrifying.

As the liner-notes for this CD point out the ‘undoubted “novelty” (although not a premiere) is ‘By the Waters of Babylon’. It is unusually scored for baritone solo, violin, cello and organ. To my ear the work is similar to the Missa Sabrinensis - not in scale, certainly, but in the tension generated between the secular and the sacred. Certainly, the Mass is a work that could never be used in a liturgical context: it can be viewed as a massive ‘tone-poem’ describing the ‘spirit’ and landscape of the River Severn. The present work is described as a ‘rhapsody’: it is not a religious setting in any conventional sense of the word: more of a ‘pastoral reflection’ on the words and well and truly situated in the Gloucestershire countryside as opposed to the Holy Land. Howells makes use of folk-inflected melodies in this piece - but never folksong. It is full of regret and perhaps a little fear: the composer was suffering a severe illness and was not sure that he had long to live. The mood of The Lark Ascending is clearly prevalent in this setting, although it is doubtful that Howells had actually heard that particular essay! Its texture is characterised by a sense of economy, sometimes becoming rather astringent.

I enjoyed the short Grace for 10 Downing Street. It was commissioned by the late Edward Heath for use at a dinner given at the Prime Minister’s residence on 29 March 1972 in honour of Sir William Walton’s seventieth birthday. It is very much an epitome of Howells’ style at this time with its ‘preponderance of melisma’. It was regularly used at dinners during Sir Edward’s tenure at Downing Street. I wonder if it is a favourite with the present incumbent?

Reason Number Three must be the three liturgical settings performed here. The Te Deum (Collegium Regale) is the only work on this CD that was composed whilst Herbert Howells was acting organist at St John’s College. However, as the title implies it was actually composed for King’s College - just down the road. It is a piece of music that epitomises the Anglican musical tradition as realised by Howells - long melismatic melodies balanced with sensual harmonies.

The following year the composer produced a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for his ‘home’ Cathedral at Gloucester. The sleeve-notes point out that in this work the composer once again puts the spiritual and the sensuous into equilibrium. He juxtaposes the simplicity of the boys’ voices at the start of the Magnificat with the powerful men’s voices n the more dramatic moments of the canticle. The general mood of this work is a balance between delicacy and restraint. There are some heart-rending moments in this sumptuous work.

Finally in the liturgical group the Choir of St John’s College sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannnis Cantabrigiense). For a work of such high calibre it is surprising to note that there are only about three recordings currently available. There is a bit of a tale associated with this piece. Apparently the setting was originally intended for Salisbury Cathedral. However, there occurred an error in an article in The Times about the composer by Frank Howes, where all the liturgical settings were listed. It included a reference to a setting for St John’s College Choir which did not actually exist. So Howells decided to offer the then musical director George Guest a redirected version of ‘Salisbury’ piece. Salisbury Cathedral had to wait until 1966 for theirs! It is a work that is characterised by economy and clarity rather than the more complex and sensuous harmonies of some of the other settings.

The last good reason for buying this CD is for the two short premieres. I had not heard the motet ‘One Thing have I desired’. This work was composed for the 75th Patronal Festival of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton. It was commissioned by the legendary priest Walter Hussey, so well known for his patronage of the arts. It is a setting of the 27th Psalm for four-part mixed chorus. It is a haunting work that combines the numinous with a somewhat more earthy sensuality.

The other ‘premiere recording’ is the chant for Psalm 142. ‘I cried unto the Lord with my voice’ is a typically subtle setting of these great words. It is certainly a chant that should make an appearance in choirs and places where they sing Evensong on the 29th day of the month.

No more requires to be said.

John France