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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Cello Concerto (second movement orch. Christopher Palmer; finale completed from the composer’s sketches by Jonathan Clinch) (1933-2014) [35:52]
Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, Op. 20: Puck’s Minuet (1917) [3:46]; Merry-Eye (1920) 8:56]
Ronald CORP (b. 1951)
Cello Concerto (2014) [23:30]
Alice Neary (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Ronald Corp
rec. 5-6 June 2014, RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow

In July 2016 I attended the first public performance of the Cello Concerto by Herbert Howells. It was given, as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival, in Gloucester Cathedral by Guy Johnston and the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra under Martin André (review). I was impressed by what I heard and, keen to hear the piece again, bought this CD on the spot.
The concerto has an interesting background and in relating it I am indebted to the booklet notes by Jonathan Clinch. The concerto was begun in 1933. Work was interrupted by the tragic early death of Howells’ son, Michael in 1935 and subsequently Howells dealt with his grief by immersing himself in the composition of two major works. One was his masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi and the other was this cello concerto. Hymnus Paradisi was completed though Howells withheld it until friends, including Vaughan Williams, prevailed upon him to allow it to be performed at the 1950 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. The concerto, however, lay incomplete.

Howells completed and orchestrated the first movement and, bearing the title Fantasia, it formed part of his D Mus submission to Oxford University in 1937. Thereafter the score was placed in the Bodleian Library and it seems to have lain there undisturbed and unknown until 1981. Then, as Lewis Foreman relates in his notes for a 1995 Chandos CD, of which more in a moment, it was discovered by a young cellist, Gillian Matthews. She gave the first public performance in 1982. Howells had completed the second movement in short score in 1936 but he did not orchestrate it; instead he began to sketch the finale. Movingly, Clinch tells us that it appears that Howells did some work on the concerto every year around the anniversary of Michael’s death “as a sort of mourning ritual”. However, little significant progress was made, it seems. In 1992, nine years after Howells’ death, Christopher Palmer discovered the manuscript and orchestrated the second movement, following the example of the completed first movement. That movement was publicly performed at a Howells Centenary Concert given in Westminster Abbey in November 1992.

The Fantasia has been played and recorded as a standalone item. I know of at least one recording, by Moray Welsh, and I have a vague recollection that at least one other cellist has also recorded it. On the same Chandos CD, recorded in 1995, Moray Welsh also played Christopher Palmer’s orchestration of the second movement, Threnody (review).

I wonder if Christopher Palmer might have done anything with Howells’ sketches for the finale had he lived. We shall never know because he died very prematurely in 1995 (In memoriam). So there the story rested until 2010 when Jonathan Clinch examined the sketches for the finale and set to work to re-order the sketches in a logical way. He edited the material and then orchestrated it. Along the way he did a judicious amount of filling out the harmonies where Howells had left little beyond basic melodic lines. Thanks to his work Alice Neary was able to make this recording in 2014.

The first movement, Fantasia: Tranquillo assai andante, accounts for half the length of the concerto; here it plays for 17:44. The opening is spacious and rhapsodic with long cantabile lines for the solo cello. There’s a decidedly pastoral feel to the music, accentuated by the orchestral writing. Gradually the pace picks up and from 5:14 there’s considerably more urgency and animation in the music – there’s what sounds to me like a Waltonian snap at times. Eventually there’s a very powerful orchestra tutti after which the music winds down into a lengthy episode which is contemplative and introspective – the performance of this passage here captures fully the eloquence of the music. The last three or four minutes return to the vigorous mood. In both the introspective and more ‘public’ passages this movement contains a good deal of deeply-felt music; lots of strong sentiment here. In his book Herbert Howells. A Centenary Celebration (1992) Christopher Palmer discusses the concerto briefly and points out that the key of this first movement is E minor, the home key of Elgar’s concerto for the instrument. It’s worth noting also that Palmer quotes a remark of Howells in the late 1930s to one of his pupils that he was working on a cello concerto ‘for Mick’.

The slow movement, Threnody; Lento calmato, assai teneramente is a beautiful, melancholic movement that exploits very fully the cello’s singing capabilities. It seems to me that Christopher Palmer’s scoring of it is both idiomatic and effective. Midway through comes an orchestral climax that is very powerful indeed but either side of this elegiac ruminations, led by the soloists, are the order of the day. The finale is marked Allegro vigoroso. Inevitably, this completion is more conjectural than the slow movement but on a first hearing I was convinced by Jonathan Clinch’s work and the chance to hear it again on the CD reinforce that feeling. The beginning of the movement has an element of Waltonian vigour and rhythmic sharpness to it and it’s in that vein that the work ends. In between comes a lovely extended episode which is much more reflective. Here the writing for the cello is soulful and the orchestral accompaniment is wonderfully delicate.

In his aforementioned book on Howells Christopher Palmer says: “To the end he resisted attempts to persuade him to finish (the Cello Concerto): it was almost as though he didn’t want to finish it.” That seems a plausible suggestion and prompts one to wonder if Palmer and Clinch should have done their respective work. I’m emphatically of the view that they were right to do so. There’s some very worthwhile music in this concerto and the completion of the work expands our knowledge and appreciation of Howells. Alice Neary is a fine advocate for the work and she’s very ably supported by Ronald Corp and the RSNO. I’ve resisted the temptation to make comparisons with Moray Welsh because at the time he made his recordings it was only possible for him to offer the first two movements. If you want to experience the completed concerto Alice Neary is your only option – and a very fine option.

Corp and the orchestra give us two miniatures by Howells. Puck’s Minuet has the distinction that it was sketched in a railway station waiting-room while Howells was enduring an unscheduled three-hour wait for a train. He certainly put the time to good use for the resultant piece is light and charming. Corp leads an engaging performance. Merry-Eye, which became its companion piece, was written during Howells’ honeymoon – what did the new Mrs Howells think about that, I wonder? One can infer that Howells was very content at this time for the piece is merry indeed. It’s a sparkling miniature and it’s well done here.

Alice Neary returns to play Ronald Corp’s own Cello Concerto. As the composer comments in the booklet, the possibility of coupling the piece on CD with the Howells concerto spurred him on to write it. That prospect also determined the nature of the concerto because Corp says he deliberately set out to write a piece that would be “lighter, less intense and more relaxed (than the Howells), even joyous.” I’m not sure what the scoring is - I guess it’s for woodwind and strings – but the orchestration is considerably lighter than the Howells. It’s a thoroughly engaging work cast in three movements. One interesting feature is that there isn’t a single pizzicato note for the soloist from start to finish. Also, though the soloist is tested, I’m sure, this isn’t an overt display piece; there is, for instance, no formal cadenza. It seems to me that the soloist generally acts as a conversational partner with the orchestra.

The first movement starts gently but then becomes more rhythmically pointed and vigorous. Yet even when the music is vigorous the cantabile side of the cello is uppermost. The slow movement is inward-looking and pensive, Corp says that “the main melody is made up of a descending scale (later ascending also) motivated by the suspensions built up around it.” I find it very effective. The finale includes a number of episodes that revisit material previously heard in the concerto. A broad, melodic opening gives way eventually (3:14) to faster music but the quick-moving material is interrupted more than once by more the lyrical passages of recollection. This is an entertaining concerto which I enjoyed very much and I think Corp has succeeded in providing a good foil to the Howells concerto.

All the performances on this CD have been very well recorded and the notes by Jonathan Clinch and Ronald Corp are excellent. This disc should be self-recommending to all Howells enthusiasts and the Corp concerto is a most welcome bonus.

John Quinn



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