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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Stabat Mater (1959-65)* [48:42]
Te Deum (1944/77)* [9:05]
Sine nomine (1922)† [12:37]
Benjamin Hulett (tenor)*; Alison Hill (soprano)†
The Bach Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 30 November-1 December 2013. DDD
NAXOS 8.573176 [70:24]

I had not expected to encounter David Hill so soon after seeing him in vivid action directing the BBC Singers and Endymion at this year's Proms in Reich's The Desert Music. He makes an adroit, strong choice, having a bright meritorious track-record in English choral music. We know this from his Naxos CDs of Howells' Hymnus Paradisi and his Finzi Intimations and Dies Natalis - all recorded with the same choir and orchestra at the same hall. I hope that he will also feel drawn to three other neglected choral works: Maurice Jacobson's The Hound of Heaven, Cyril Rootham's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity and an American work of grand emotional impact: Robert Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses.

All three of these Howells works are for choir and orchestra with a tenor soloist in the Stabat Mater who also vocalises, along with a soprano soloist, in the Sine nomine. Quite apart from its intrinsic attractions - and they are strong - this disc will be a popular and inevitable purchase for Howells enthusiasts. It includes what I think is the first recording of the Te Deum and only the second recording of Sine Nomine. The earlier Howells disc from David Hill and Naxos cannily added another rarity, Howells' Sir Patrick Spens, to Hymnus Paradisi.

Among Howells' output three works stand proud: Hymnus paradisi (1938–50), Missa Sabrinensis (1954) and Stabat Mater (1959–65). All three are large canvasses: in duration, forces and emotional and philosophical ambit. The first and last of these are bound up in a family tragedy: the death as a result of polio of Howells' nine-year-old son Michael in 1935. Grief, rather than silencing the composer channelled its way into two works and unlocked a brightly burning and poignant vein of inspiration. The works are Hymnus Paradisi and Stabat Mater and maybe others. While Hymnus remained completed but in the drawer as a private expressive statement for decades the Stabat Mater, although it was several years in the writing, appeared without any real delay once completed. That said it emerged into an artistic world in an ill mood to welcome such an intensely emotional and densely woven lyrical work. It has not had many performances since the premiere on 22 November 1965 when Robert Tear, The Bach Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Sir David Willcocks. It carries a dedication to ‘The Bach Choir and in affectionate memory of Ralph Vaughan Williams’. RVW had died less than ten years before, an event that fell four years after Howells received the commission from The Bach Choir. There were two revivals during the 1990s directed by Stephen Jackson and Edward Downes. It was one of those works that remained resistant to the Howells revival that was sparked by Christopher Palmer's still valuable Novello study from 1978.

The Stabat Mater is in seven separately tracked movements; here: Stabat mater dolorosa [7:34]; Cujus animam gementem [7:58]; Quis est homo? [4:42]; Eia, Mater [4:55]; Sancta Mater [5:44]; Fac ut portem [6:35]; Christe, cum sit hinc exire [11:15]. It is an extended reflection on the sorrows of Mary at the foot of the Cross. The first instantly asserts a wailing vein of melancholy intensity that will be familiar from Hymnus Paradisi. The Cujus animam comes across as an emotionally eloquent pilgrims' march with searing violins cutting across the choral texture which in itself has a great complexity of weave of vocal parts. The solo tenor is the admirably clear, steady and ardent Ben Hulett. The Quis est homo? recalls the dynamic driven eloquence and power of Missa Sabrinensis. Here is a big choir proceeding at speed. The impression is similar to that of a huge cumulo-nimbus cloud flying across the sky in a gale. The Eia, Mater confers a slow subsiding to an immanent peace. Again the solo tenor is part of the picture. The Sancta Mater again indulges in an ecstatic complexity and speed. It's certainly not somnolent. The smashing tireless rush of the music recalls the glorious clamour of Brian's Gothic. It rises to moments of exaltation comparable with the Lux Perpetua marvels of Hymnus at 2:45. Fac ut portem is even more possessed and strenuous with the heart-beat pushed yet further. The work finishes with the image of a swaying and circling angelic host in Christe, cum sit hinc exire. This is a demanding and complex work and is treated to a great recording, the resonant depth of which one can sample at the start of tr. 7 and in the pristine sound of Hulett singing Stabat Mater at 7:50 just before a slowly bell-tolled march enters. Then follows the merest whisper from the choir, superbly rendered by technical team, Andrew Walton and Mike Clements.

After this come two fairly different works. The joyous Te Deum is from 1944 and at times sounds very much like the choral Vaughan Williams. It's the Collegium Regale Te Deum in the composer's 1977 orchestration. It is clearer textured - more transparent by comparison with the luxury density of Hymnus, Stabat and the Missa. The first section carries a direct reminiscence of Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music a work still warm from creation at the time. Later episodes evoke unison congregational hymn singing but ends with an entirely suitable dazzling triumph. It would make a good companion to Walton's 1937 Coronation Te Deum. The Sine Nomine is earlier still. Its pastoral-ecstatic vocalise is at a higher temperature than that found in the work which is often used as a comparator: Vaughan Williams' more introspective A Pastoral Symphony but more earnest than Bliss's chamber Rhapsody Its progress is nevertheless rhapsodic and indeed it carries the Cobbett-style subtitle of 'Phantasy'. The work radiates a triumphant dazzle and lyric complexity. It also sports a big organ sound, as befits its Three Choirs première. The blending of the male and female voices is consummate. I was very taken with the artless yet perfectly sensual sound created by soprano Alison Hill. Look out for her name.

This is Sine Nomine's second outing on disc. It was recorded first in 2003 on a valuable ClassicO CD which also included rare choral orchestral works by Havergal Brian, Elgar, Dyson, Bridge and Purcell (review ~~ review). Douglas Bostock conducted Royal Liverpool Philharmonic forces.

All three works here thrive in the hands of these singers, this orchestra and this conductor. Let us keep our fingers crossed for an exultant, propulsive and superbly recorded Missa Sabrinensis from them. The Missa is a work that remains very exciting and accessibly emotional to this day. It plays for about the same length as this disc so will not need a 'filler'.

There were a couple of typos in Andrew Burn's otherwise very usefully detailed insert notes (English only): It is Missa Sabrinensis not Missa Sabriensis and the reference to Piano Quintet (1916) should be to the Piano Quartet.

The sung Latin texts and the translations are laid out side by side in the booklet and are also accessible online. Well done.

The disc faces some doughty competition from a Chandos double (2-for-1) that includes both the exultant Missa Sabrinensis (Severn Mass) and the Stabat Mater in performances of equal merit technical and artistic to the Stabat Mater here. I could not choose between the two Stabats but would just point out Naxos' upper bargain price and the fact that this Naxos disc is the only way to come at both the Sine Nomine and the Te Deum. These are not inconsiderable works and to hear the Stabat Mater from the choir that commissioned it all those years ago is another compelling lure.

Rob Barnett

Reviews of Howells on Naxos