RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Jubilate Deo (1967) [4:29]
Thee Will I Love (1970) [5:47]
The Winchester Service (1967) [10:25]
Rhapsody No. 4 (1958) [6:52]
Come, my soul (1972) [4:29]
Te Deum (1965) [12:02]
Coventry Antiphon (1961) [4:49]
A Flourish for the Bidding (1969) [3:20]
Antiphon (1976) [4:03]
The Fear of the Lord (1976) [5:46]
Exultate Deo (1974) [6:22]
Simon Bell (organ); Winchester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Lumsden
rec. 22-25 March 2010, Winchester Cathedral, U.K.
HYPERION CDA67853 [68:30]
A glance at the label, repertoire and performers is enough to tell us that this disc will be a winner, and so it turns out to be. It seems almost impudent to review it.
The title of the collection is “The Winchester Service and other late works”. There are nine choral works, some with organ accompaniment, and two pieces for organ alone. The music Howells composed towards the end of his long life has been neglected, and even admirers of the composer will probably find some new things here. His music became more uncompromising in later life, with harsher dissonances and fewer allowances made in respect of difficulty, either for the performers or the audience. What remains, however, is the acute ear for choral and organ textures, the generous and eloquent response to words, and that famous soaring quality that has so often been described as ecstatic.
Typical of Howells’ later style is the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis he composed in 1967 for Winchester Cathedral. Pretty much gone are the harmonies based on piled up thirds and sixths, to be replaced, in music no less grand and sonorous, by a strangely potent mix of richness and austerity. The work begins with a long passage for the trebles alone, and once the other voices enter the music soon rises to considerable dramatic heights. The Doxology (“Glory be to the Father”) of the Magnificat ends with a spectacular cadence, and that of the Nunc Dimittis would seem to be heading in the same direction, except that Howells reserves a surprise for us. Less immediately attractive than the Services for King’s, St John’s or, one of my own favourites, New College, Oxford, this is just as satisfying in its own way, and is, like all the music on this disc, an essential element in understanding the whole of Howells’ output.
From the same year comes a Jubilate Deo, composed for the Chapel Royal. I had never heard this work before, and its startling originality and near-ecstatic Doxology and final Amens were enough to make me play it again straight away. Thee Will I Love, to words by Robert Bridges, a dramatic affirmation of faith with a particularly ravishing final cadence, will be another welcome discovery for many. The unaccompanied motet Come, my soul was dedicated to Howells’ friend and Royal College of Music colleague Richard Latham. The text, by John Newton, is another affirmation, the speaker serene in the knowledge that Christ will welcome him into Heaven. Even so, it is the final line that receives the full treatment: “Lead me to my journey’s end” closes the work in quiet contemplation of that journey wherein even those secure in their faith will feel apprehension at what lies ahead.
The Te Deum Howells wrote to celebrate the restoration of the church of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol is spectacular in scope, effect and the demands made of the performers. One expects a shattering major chord finish, then a minor chord seems to be on the way, but the composer adds another mysterious minute or so to close the work with no third, major or minor, at all.
Another exquisite cadence, and music closer to Howells’ earlier style, closes the Coventry Antiphon, composed for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. Not so Antiphon, composed for the Bach Choir and first performed by them in 1977. Composed to George Herbert’s familiar words “Let all the world in every corner sing”, this is Howells at his most uncompromising, to the point that many might have difficulty recognising the composer in it. It sounds fiendishly difficult too. The Fear of the Lord, despite its title, reflects on that faith that brings “rejoicing”, “gladness”, “a merry heart” and “a long life”. The first half of the piece is forceful, but even more striking is the extraordinarily eloquent second half, wherein the eighty-four year-old composer sets the words “Whoso feareth the Lord…shall find favour in the day of his death.” The programme closes with the gloriously festive Exultate Deo Howells composed in 1974 for the enthronement of the Bishop of Lincoln.
Slightly allergic to organ music, I feel less qualified to comment on the solo pieces. The Rhapsody is the last of a series of four, though the preceding three were all composed in the second decade of the twentieth century. Where the earlier pieces tend to be pensive, even pastoral in atmosphere, this one is dramatic and striking. The spiky A Flourish for a Bidding is more dramatic still. We learn from Paul Andrews’ excellent booklet note that this last piece was composed in aid of the Royal College of Organists, and, as the title might lead us to think, the manuscript was auctioned. The lucky bidder was the publisher Novello, at £21, a remarkable bargain, one might think, even in 1969.
The two organ solos are splendidly played by Simon Bell. Articulation, choice of registration, the fabulous acoustic of Winchester Cathedral or all three make for admirably clear textures, something my admittedly prejudiced ears do not always find to be the case. The performances of the choral works are quite simply beyond praise and require no further comment from me. The recording is beautiful, bringing us fairly close to the choir whilst retaining a strong sense of the building. For seasoned Howells admirers, and, with the occasional health warning, for those beginning their Howells journey too, this disc is an absolute must.
A superb, unmissable recital of Howells’ later choral and organ works.