Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Hymnus Paradisi (1938) [46:42]
A Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song (1933) [18:21]
Joan Rodgers (soprano); Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor); Alan Opie (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 2-4, 7 November 1998, All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London. DDD
Original texts, French and German translations included
CHANDOS CHAN 10727X [65:12]
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 did.
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 overall performance.
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 series.
A splendid recording of Hymnus Paradisi coupled with a Howells rarity
see also reviews of the original release and this release by Rob Barnett