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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
When first thine eies unveil - Choral Music
see end of review for track listing
*Denotes first recording
Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer
Jonathan Stamp (organ)
rec. 24-26 June 2013, St Alban the Martyr, Highgate, Birmingham. DDD
English texts and Latin texts; English translations included

In alliance with Somm Recordings, Paul Spicer, directing his Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir is putting together an impressive group of recordings of British Choral Music. This is the third of their recordings I have heard and I would judge it the most impressive to date. The Howells completist will want it for the three first recordings it contains. For others it provides as good an overview of Howells' writing for chorus be it a cappella, accompanied, sacred or secular as any.
Spicer recorded much of the repertoire previously with his Finzi Singers on Chandos the best part of twenty years ago. Where I have been able to make direct comparisons there has not been a great change in interpretation. His Finzi Singers are more evidently are maturer group of singers with a more consciously lush tone - helped in part by the more resonant Chandos recording. His young Birmingham singers perhaps do not have the technical resource or lustre but in many ways - and certainly in some of the pieces - their slightly plainer sound allied to the freshness of their sound makes for very appealing performances. As a programme this has been well planned. What at first sight might seem to be another disc of Church Music proves to be far wider than that. We are given Carol-anthems such as Long Long Ago, simple folk hymn-like pieces of great beauty such as O Mortal Man to secular madrigals - In Youth is Pleasure. Standing at the centre of the programme is the powerfully austere Mass in the Dorian Mode written for Westminster Cathedral. Indeed, the particular interest of this recital is that it chooses not to focus on the 'bread-and-butter' Anglican church music for which Howells is best known and most often remembered. Likewise the span is remarkable; some sixty five years from the Mass to the late setting of the George Herbert Antiphon (textually familiar as the last of Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs).
It is worth focusing on the Mass setting, not only as the largest work here but its significance. I find it remarkable to realise that this was written as early as 1912 - a full nine years before Vaughan Williams' justly famous G minor Mass. More remarkable when one considers that the composer was just twenty when he wrote it. Two quotes from Howells, mentioned in Jonathan Clinch's fine liner are worth repeating; "all through my life I've had this strange feeling that I belonged somehow to the Tudor period not only musically but in every way" and "[the Mass is a] vivid, powerful, pervasive and irresistible part of the mental and spiritual nature of man." Add to that two other life experiences; attending the 1910 premiere of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and that Royal College of Music student were encouraged to visit the then new Westminster (Catholic) Cathedral to hear "polyphony for a penny". No surprise that this Mass should seek to emulate the Mass settings of Byrd or Tallis. The young Howells was not able to achieve a work as remarkably timeless and unique as the Vaughan Williams setting but it is remarkably assured for all that. Set for simple SATB, Howells' eschewing of excess or display, it is both striking and effective. This is where this new recording pays dividends; Spicer's singers have an unaffected directness of utterance that is both wholly appropriate and very moving.
For some the use of male and female voices may be an issue but to my ear this is an irrelevance. What is notable is that a year on from the recording of the Stanford Part-Songs disc Spicer has moulded a more refined and nuanced vocal group. Of the previous 23 singers, 11 sing again here (including four of the five tenors but only one of the basses). There is bound to be a high turnover of performers in any college-based group, but I think the presence of a core of singers experienced in working together and with Spicer is audible. Across the entire disc there are a couple of very minor fluffs in ensemble but overall the blend and balance is much more successful.
Aside from the Mass, this is a disc full of musical gems of considerable beauty. As with any such compilation there will be overlaps and duplications with other favourite recitals. I have a particular affection for the recital by Ralph Allwood and his young Rodolfus Choir on Signum. There are similar benefits of fresh-voiced brilliance. Allwood's sounds like it is a larger group, slighter closer recorded in a warmer acoustic. This seeks to emphasise the more sensuously overtly expressive style that Allwood favours which sits between the style of Spicer/Birmingham and Spicer/Finzi Singers. Just possibly I find that the most appealing of all but fortunately there is very little overlap in repertoire so I do not have to make a choice.
Returning to the music on this current disc; the previously mentioned Long, long ago is a delight, and one I had not previously heard. The closing page's ecstatic chromatic climax over the phrase "Christ was born in Bethlehem" is archetypal of both Howells at his finest and became the embodiment of British Church music in the 20th Century - listen to how he slips to onto a beautifully resolved E major chord for the final "to heal the world's woe." In contrast the simplicity of O Mortal Man - based as it is on the melody of the Sussex Mummer's Carol - is disarmingly moving. The 1916 Regina Coeli appears on Spicer's earlier Mass disc too - I find it remarkable how much variety Howells finds working within what would seem to be a fairly limited genre within a genre. Jonathan Clinch hears a similarity with Parry's late choral works - the comparison is a valid one, the older composer's great Songs of farewell being exactly contemporaneous. Again, it seems astonishing that Howells' youthful works can sit alongside those mature masterpieces and not pale in the comparison. But these are just a couple of the riches this disc contains - indeed, one of the things that impresses most is the consistently high quality of both the music and its execution.
All in all a very high quality product from Somm. As mentioned, Jonathan clinch contributes a good, English only, liner note, all the texts are given in full clearly printed on good quality paper. Paul Arden-Taylor's engineering is discreetly fine and for those with an eye on value, this is an extremely well-filled disc running just shy of eighty minutes. Most importantly, Paul Spicer and his choir seem wholly attuned to many facets of Howells' choral personality. A precious addition to the Howells discography.
Nick Barnard
Previous review: John Quinn

Track listing
Walking in the Snow (1950) [4:19]
Long, long ago (1950) [5:03]
Levavi oculos meos (1959)* [5:10]
In Youth is Pleasure (1915) [3:21]
Before me careless lying (1918) [5:05]
O Salutaris Hostia (1913) [2:08]
Mass in the Dorian Mode (1912) [24:51]
Salve Regina (1916) [4:12]
My eyes for beauty pine (1925) [2:20]
When first thine eies unveil (1925)* [6:09]
O Mortal Man* [2:40]
Haec Dies (1918) [3:14]
Regina Caeli (1916) [3:32]
Nunc Dimittis (1914) [2:49]
Antiphon (1977) [4:10]