Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
A Sequence for St Michael [10:01]
De La Mare’s Pavane [4:15]
A Hymn for St Cecilia [3:14]
Walton’s Toye [2:42]
House of the Mind [8:30]
Flourish for a Bidding [4:10]
New College Service – Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis [9:33]
St Louis come to Clifton [5:13]
O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem [7:15]
Jacob’s Brawl [2:24]
King of Glory [8:56]
Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
David Burchell (organ)
rec. July and September 1987, Chapel of New College, Oxford
CRD 3454 [67:29]

Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s the Choir of New College Oxford made over 25 recordings for CRD covering repertory from Tallis and Tavener to Duruflé and Fauré. Included in this vast recorded legacy are two discs devoted exclusively to the music of Herbert Howells. What made these two discs a little special was the fact that they were produced by the late Christopher Palmer who was, to put it mildly, an extremely passionate advocate for Howells’ music.

A few years before the composer’s death, Palmer had published a short monograph – the first published study on Howells at that time – and his booklet notes with this disc, littered with exclamation marks, are a testament to his effusive enthusiasm for the composer. We read, for example, that Howells had a “God-like mind” and that in his music “everything is God-given, everything a cause for joy and celebration”. A mention of a veiled criticism prompts the unabashed rejoinder “What nonsense!”, while in a sentence of almost mind-boggling rhetoric, he suggests, when describing the oddly-titled organ piece of 1977, St Louis come to Clifton, “the tune is given in its pristine state at the beginning, and returns at the end simply but poignantly harmonised; what happens to it in between is Howells’ own business!”. You get the drift.

Palmer was also clearly proud of the organ transcriptions he made of two of Howell’s clavichord pieces, Walton’s Toye (using a theme from Crown Imperial) and Jacob’s Brawl, specially for this disc. He had reason to be proud of them, for the transcriptions are good and work well on this recording, with David Burchell handling the very un-English New College organ with discretion, and splendidly capturing the intimacy of the originals, even in the neo-Waltonian festivities of the former. In fact, the entire programme is well selected to show off a side of Howells away from the big English cathedral works by which he is best known. None of the echoing vastness of the St Paul’s or Collegium Regale settings here, but generally Howells at his more acidic and introspective.

There’s a well-poised account of the Hymn for St Cecilia and, best of all on this disc, the New College Choir turns out a deeply affecting account of the famous anthem O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. Edward Higginbottom shows his perceptive and innate understanding of how to get the best from a choir through some infinitely well-crafted lines and a nicely measured sense of the music unfolding in a relaxed, timeless manner. Perhaps the bigger moments – notably the soaring opening for A Sequence of St Michael with Howells at his most passionate and angst-laden – take on a somewhat hard edge, and the anthem King of Glory seems a trifle too reserved convey the “too pagan, too pleasure loving (and giving?)” of Palmer’s descriptive note. But the New College Service works admirably – as, I suppose, it should - and the integration of organ and choir is never less than perfect.

I wish Palmer could have prompted both choir and engineer to produce a more full and robust sound. The recorded sound generally is very thin and the recording level too low for the music to make its full impact without much drastic tweaking of the volume control knob. But while his enthusiasm has not fully rubbed off on to the choir, and one detects in Higginbottom an unwillingness to delve too deeply into the emotional content of Howells’ music, these are nevertheless very fine performances of music which is somewhat less well represented on disc than other works by Howells.

Mark Rochester
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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