In my opinion Hymnus Paradisi ranks alongside The
Dream of Gerontius and Belshazzar’s Feast as
the three most blazingly original of English choral works -
and not just of the twentieth century. Furthermore, when it
comes to eloquence of utterance I believe that only Gerontius
rivals it. I suspect I have in my collection nearly every recording
that’s been issued of this radiant masterpiece - with
the exception of this Richard Hickox version. Quite how I came
to miss it I don’t know, especially since the other piece
on the disc, A Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song,
is a great rarity and this is its first and, I believe, only
recording. So I jumped at the chance to review this disc on
its reissue as part of the Chandos series, The Hickox Legacy.
As I say, A Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song, is
a great rarity. It was written as a wedding present for the
baritone, Keith Falkner and his bride, Christabel. However,
Howells neither orchestrated the piece nor presented it to the
Falkners until a première was arranged in 1953 - imagine
having to wait twenty years for the delivery of a wedding gift!
It’s a rather unusual work in the Howells catalogue in
that it is both secular and extrovert. The work calls
for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra. The
texts are from the early sixteenth century and, essentially,
concern a young girl’s willingness to be wed and the amorous
intentions of a somewhat clumsy Kentish yeoman. I wouldn’t
say it’s great Howells but it’s very well worth
hearing, not least because along with other neglected works
such as Sine nomine (1922) it fills out our picture
of the composer. The present performance is a rumbustious one.
Alan Opie, as the eponymous yeoman, is in tremendous form while
Joan Rodgers makes a winning impression as the would-be bride.
The piece, which plays continuously, is in four sections. I
think the third section, which is the most extensive and expansive,
also contains the best music. Much of the section features the
baritone in an ardent solo, in which he’s supported by
the choir. Opie does this very well indeed. This is archetypal,
chromatic Howells. This colourful score gets a strong performance
under the committed direction of Richard Hickox. If, like me,
you come new to the piece I hope you’ll enjoy it as I
However, thoughA Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song
is enjoyable it doesn’t approach the stature of Hymnus
Paradisi, surely Howells’ masterpiece. As is well
known, he composed it in the wake of the sudden death of his
young son, Michael, to whose memory the score is inscribed.
In writing it he drew partially on material from his a cappella
Requiem, a work composed before Michael’s death and one
which had not been published or performed; indeed, the Requiem
was to remain hidden from the public gaze for even longer than
Hymnus. Howells not only decided against releasing Hymnus
Paradisi for performance once he had finished it; he kept
its existence known only to a small circle of people. Eventually,
thank goodness, Vaughan Williams persuaded him to allow it to
be performed at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester.
It’s an extraordinary score. One thing that I find so
remarkable about it is that, though the work was born out of
deep personal grief, there’s so much ecstasy in the music.
We are acutely aware of the composer’s pain, not least
in the first two movements, the orchestral ‘Preludio’
and ‘Requiem aeternam’. However, the first words
that are set in the last movement are “Holy is the true
light, and passing wonderful” and, in truth, so much of
the music that has preceded this section is luminous in nature
that when this final movement is reached we feel we’ve
arrived emotionally and musically at the point at which Howells
has been aiming since the work began. In fact, I find it hard
to think of a passage in English music that is so suffused with
a spirit of ecstasy and mounting exaltation as the first six
minutes or so of this last movement.
The work has been lucky in the recording studio and revisiting
earlier recordings in conjunction with this review has reminded
me that all have their strengths: there isn’t a dud among
them. The pioneering recording, through which I learned the
work, was the EMI version led by Sir David Willcocks in 1970.
It still sounds very good today, not least for the wonderful
performance by Heather Harper, whose singing remains the benchmark
in the work’s discography. Vernon Handley’s 1991
recording, made in Liverpool for Hyperion, is a splendid affair
also. Handley conducts with spirit and authority and in the
spacious acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall the Hyperion engineers
achieve a good concert hall balance. This performance was good
enough for Brian Wilson to rate the download
versionas one of Hyperion’s top 30 offerings
when they launched their download service in December 2009.
Since then we’ve had the excellent Naxos version, which
was issued in 2007 (review).
I rate all of these recordings highly and now, having heard
it at last, I regard this Hickox version equally highly.
Both soloists are excellent. Joan Rodgers produces consistently
beautiful tone; yes, she employs vibrato but not to an extent
that bothered me. When required she gives us some radiant quiet
singing but she also delivers the goods on the many occasions
when Howells requires his soprano to soar to the heights and
crown the ensemble with sumptuous sustained top notes. I still
regard Heather Harper as the finest exponent of this role that
I’ve heard but Miss Rodgers is close to that level of
accomplishment. The late Anthony Rolfe-Johnson had sufficient
vocal heft to encompass such roles as Peter Grimes but his was
an essentially mellifluous voice and it’s that quality
above all that one looks for inHymnus Paradisi. I had
high expectations of him in this role and he doesn’t disappoint.
Both he and Miss Rodgers produce some delightful and gently
ecstatic singing in the third movement, ‘The Lord is my
Shepherd’. At the start of the fifth movement, ‘I
heard a voice from Heaven’ Rolfe-Johnson is wonderfully
eloquent, delivering his line with eloquence yet also with touching
simplicity. If I were being hyper-critical he doesn’t
hit the top G sharp quite cleanly at the start of his lovely
third phrase ‘Even so saith the Spirit’ but this
is an isolated and very small blemish on a beautifully judged
The BBC Symphony Chorus sings very well indeed. The chorus parts
are very demanding, not least in terms of the complex chromatic
passages in which the score abounds. However, this choir is
right on top of the music. I’m a little surprised that
no other recording has followed the example of Sir David Willcocks
in having a separate choir - in his case the choir of King’s
College, Cambridge - to form the semi chorus as the differentiated
timbre makes a difference. However, where Hickox scores is that
when the chorus divides into two choirs the left-right division
between the two is quite clearly audible. The playing of the
BBC Symphony Orchestra is excellent. The orchestration is marvellous
both in the many richly scored passages and also in the places
where Howells fines down the texture almost to nothing. The
tonal resources of the BBCSO are splendid throughout.
Controlling all these forces and inspiring them with his vision
of the score is Richard Hickox. He conducts superbly, releasing
all the emotion and ecstasy in the score yet keeping a firm
grip on the proceedings at the same time. I’ve always
thought that large-scale choral works brought out the best in
him and this is one such instance. This is a very impressive
achievement. In passing, I’ve always been surprised that
a few years earlier when Chandos recorded the other two large
scale choral works by Howells, the Stabat Mater and the
Missa Sabrinensis the projects were entrusted
to Gennady Rozhdestvensky. He made a fine job of both but one
wonders what Hickox would have made of those scores.
The recorded sound on each of the versions mentioned in this
review is good - and all the teams of engineers achieve excellent
if different results. I think, however, that the Chandos engineers
do best of all. The sound on both works is excellent and Hymnus
Paradisi in particular benefits from the presence and detail
that are such hallmarks of Chandos recordings.
It’s very unusual to find anything amiss with Chandos
documentation but on this occasion a couple of points call for
comment. Andrew Burn says in his note that A Kent Yeoman’s
Wooing Song was written “in the early 1930s”.
In fact the piece can be dated more precisely. Both Christopher
Palmer, in his book Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration
(1992) and Paul Spicer in his short but good 1998 biography
of the composer, state clearly that it was written in 1933.
More regrettably, I guess that Chandos has simply reprinted
most of the original booklet text but surely Anthony Rolfe-Johnson’s
biography could have been altered to record the fact that he
died in 2010 and to avoid speaking of him in the present tense.
After all, the conductor’s biography has been worded to
record his equally regrettable passing.
This splendid recording of Hymnus Paradisi is a particularly
appropriate choice for inclusion in Chandos’ Hickox Legacy
see also reviews of the original
release and this
release by Rob Barnett