In the eyes of many the reputation of Herbert Howells rests on his important output of church music and on his great choral/orchestral masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi
. However, much of the church music was written in and after the 1940s whereas most of his chamber and orchestral music was composed earlier than that. In the last twenty or thirty years, especially through recordings, much more of his early output has been made widely available to hear and this has enabled us to form a much more rounded view of Howells. This new set gives us the most comprehensive view ever of his music for violin and piano. The three numbered sonatas have been recorded before though the Second Sonata has not previously appeared in the four-movement version included here. Of especial interest is the premiere recording of the early B minor Sonata.
This is an extremely substantial work; indeed, it’s longer than the First and Second sonatas combined. Howells wrote in April and May 1911 and it was part of his eventually successful strategy to win a ‘Foundation’ scholarship at the Royal College of Music which, in effect, was the only route by which someone from a modest family background could aspire to study at the RCM in London at the time. So far as is known the piece lay unperformed in the RCM archives and only achieved a first performance in 2013. The composer and conductor, Paul Spicer, has edited the manuscript so as to make performance possible.
In separate and detailed booklet notes both Spicer and Rupert Marshall-Luck point out how manifestly this score was influenced by the music of Elgar. We know that Howells was bowled over by hearing a performance of The Dream of Gerontius
, under the composer’s direction, in Gloucester Cathedral during the 1910 Three Choirs Festival and the opening of the second movement seems clearly to be the work of someone on whom the opening of Part II of Gerontius
has made a strong impression. However, both Spicer and Marshall-Luck point out also the influence of the Violin Concerto. The two works share the same B minor key signature and the influence is frequently audible in Howells’ music. I wonder how Howells might have acquired knowledge of the Concerto by the spring of 1911. The work wasn’t premiered until November 1910 – in London - and I doubt Howells attended that event. I’m unsure how soon after the first performance the work was published. Might Howells have been present at an early performance or rehearsal? One intriguing possibility that occurs to me is that he might have overheard some of the rehearsals and private run-throughs of the concerto in which Elgar was involved during the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1910 though I doubt very much that Howells, a humble pupil of the Gloucester Cathedral Organist, Sir Herbert Brewer would have been invited in to any of these sessions. Somehow, however, the young man who sat down to write this big sonata early in 1911 seems to have had a good knowledge of Elgar’s music and of his Violin Concerto.
Everything about Howells’ B minor Sonata is big: the ambition behind it; the gestures; many of the themes; and the length of the movements. In this performance the first movement pays for 18 minutes and the finale for 15 minutes. Only the central slow movement is relatively modest, lasting 7 ½ minutes. In many ways this slow movement strikes me as the most successful of the three and I think that’s because its ambitions are more modest and, therefore, more fully attained. As Rupert Marshall-Luck observes, one can hear echoes of ‘I went to sleep’ and surrounding material from Part II of Gerontius.
Paul Spicer likens the music to an organ improvisation and at the end, which is especially lovely, I could almost imagine the last notes of a quiet organ improvisation gently floating away into the spacious acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral.
The first movement opens with a spacious piano introduction. Once the violin enters Howells exploits its singing qualities to the full in some very Elgarian writing. Indeed, it’s not until we’re some 6 ½ minutes into the movement that there’s any fast passagework at all and even then the long, singing lines soon reassert themselves. This is spacious, often passionate music with a decidedly lyrical bias and several dramatic episodes. I’m in no doubt that in an ideal world eventually Howells would have pruned the movement – the three numbered sonatas are much more concise – but for all its discursiveness this movement contains a great deal of ardent, romantic music that is hard to resist and which one would regret losing through the editing process.
The finale is also lengthy and, once again, begins with a substantial piano introduction. Paul Spicer suggests, rightly I’m sure, that had Stanford got hold of this movement when Howells went to study with him at the RCM the more experienced composer ‘would have suggested cuts, greater conciseness and a less repetitious opening figure which affects later parts of the movement.’ This movement contains another stream of often-impassioned music but I found that it didn’t hold my attention as much as the first movement had done. Perhaps that’s because it follows over 25 minutes of music in the preceding movements or perhaps it’s the case that the material is less interesting. In this finale I had more of an impression of gesture writing at times and there’s no doubt the music needed to be tauter. However, there’s a great deal to enjoy.
The first performance of the B minor Sonata was given by Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard, under the auspices of the English Music Festival, in Cheltenham in September 2013. I was unable to attend but my colleague, Roger Jones, reviewed
the concert for Seen and Heard. His concluding comment read as follows: ‘For an 18 year old this is in many respects a remarkable work showing great promise; it is something of a pity Howells did not return to it in later years to strip out the excess.’ I think that’s well said. However, it’s very good news that we can hear it now and judge for ourselves. It’s even better news that its debut recording has been entrusted to Marshall-Luck and Rickard who make a compelling case for the work, surmounting its many technical challenges and surviving the test of stamina. Though the score is clearly very demanding it seems to me that Howells, even at this young age, was very adept not only in writing for both the violin and for the piano but also at writing for the instruments as a duo. In his subsequent violin and piano writing he was to develop this skill considerably.
Incidentally, the manuscript of the B minor Sonata suggests that Howells had second thoughts about the ending of the piano introduction to the first movement. Marshall-Luck and Rickard decided that the composer’s second thoughts were preferable. However, Matthew Rickard has also recorded the original opening and this has been included as a bonus track. If you want to hear this followed by the rest of the movement then a little judicious track programming will do the trick.
As was the case with Beethoven’s first two piano concertos, Howell’s First Violin Sonata was, in fact, composed after
the piece that he published as his Second Sonata. Let’s consider the three numbered sonatas in chronological order, which is how they’re arranged on these CDs. Howells withdrew the Second Sonata, even though it was well received, and he later excised the third movement and inserted it into his Third Sonata. Paul Spicer has edited the Second Sonata and has placed the third movement back into its original context so Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard here record it for the first time as a four-movement work. The overt Elgar influences that we encountered in the B minor Sonata are nowhere near as apparent by 1917 but this is still music that is recognisably English in tone – as are all the pieces in this set.
I like the Second Sonata very much. Once again, we find the singing qualities of the violin well exploited. The writing is purposeful and the structure seems a good deal tighter than was the case in the B minor work. The violin part in the first movement is often bold and rhapsodic while the independent piano part is very substantial in scope. The second movement is lovely; the opening is melancholy and sounds half-remembered. Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard offer highly expressive playing throughout the movement. The violin sounds soulful and beautifully controlled and the musicians distil a rather special atmosphere. The scherzo, now restored to its rightful place by Paul Spicer, is aptly described by Marshall-Luck as ‘quicksilver’. I find it difficult to pin down the nature of the piece: is it playful or is any apparent playfulness deceptive, masking more serious intent? Via a subdued introduction the finale follows without a pause. Much of this movement is dance-like though there are some pensive passages.
Sonata No. 1 followed a year later. It’s cast, like the Second Sonata, in four movements but here the movements play without a break. It’s a concise work – the whole piece is shorter than just the first movement of the B minor Sonata. However, though the work is quite tautly structured the sound
of the music, especially the often-impassioned soaring violin line in the first movement, imparts a strong sense of freedom. The slow movement is expansive and deeply felt though from 4:03 onwards the music starts to move forward and gradually gathers pace until we arrive seamlessly in the Allegro molto
movement, which is strongly rhythmical and urgent. In a neat reversal Howells then slows the pace towards the end of that movement to reach the calm water of the last movement, which is marked Assai tranquillo
. As the tempo instruction implies this is an exquisite reverie for the violin. Here the piano part is much sparer than has been the case in the rest of the sonata and the pianist mainly underpins the violin line with a chordal accompaniment.
Howells’ final Sonata, a three-movement work, came five years later. The first movement starts lyrically but soon bursts into great energy - Rupert Marshall-Luck rightly speaks of ‘fiery restlessness’. Though there are some passages that offer a respite much of the musical argument is very dynamic and the performers project it strongly. The music of the short central movement has already been heard in the Second Sonata from whence it first came. There’s a very energetic opening to the finale which has definite echoes of Jupiter
from Holst’s Planets
Suite. Much of what follows is surging and impassioned, reaching a potent climax at 5:32. After so much frenetic thematic and virtuosic activity the tranquil, reflective closing pages (from 6:45) give especial pleasure.
The collection of shorter pieces are lighter in tone and don’t match the eloquence of the sonatas. However, all are very well crafted and worth hearing. I like the touching, gentle Cradle Song
and the half-lights of the wistful Pastorale
, the first of the Three Pieces are as intriguing as they are lovely.
Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard face very little competition in this repertoire. The Third Sonata was included on a 2002 Naxos disc, which I have not heard (review
) but I suspect this may now be deleted. The three numbered Sonatas are available on Hyperion Helios (CHH55139) but that disc presents the Second Sonata in its three-movement version. For completeness – and for several pieces that are not otherwise available – this new set stands alone. And, to be honest, the quality of the performances here is such that Marshall-Luck and Rickard need not fear competition. These are surely reference performances. The clinching argument for this set is that it offers the only current opportunity to hear the B minor Sonata and no Howells enthusiast will want to miss that.
It only remains to say that producer/engineer, Richard Bland has once again achieved excellent sound which is truthful and well balanced, just as he did when these musicians recorded the sonatas of Elgar and Gurney in the same venue (review
). The documentation is comprehensive.
Howells’ music for violin and piano was clearly a significant element in his early career, as we can clearly tell now that we have the chance to hear it all drawn together on this pair of discs. This is an important release and through it I now feel I know much more about this fine composer.