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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Choral and Organ Music
A Sequence for St. Michael
De La Mare’s Pavane
A Hymn for St. Cecilia
Walton’s Toye
House of the Mind
Flourish for a Bidding
New College Service
St. Louis come to Clifton
O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
Jacob’s Brawl
King of Glory
David Burchell (organ)
Choir of New College/Edward Higginbottom
rec. Chapel of New College, Oxford
Full English texts included
CRD 3454 [67:29]

Choral Music
Behold, O God our defender
Missa Aedes Christi: Kyrie, Credo
Psalm Prelude Set 1 No. 1
Missa Aedes Christi: Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Gloria
Preludio ‘Sine Nomine’
Three Carol Anthems: Sing Lullaby, Here is the little door, A Spotless Rose
Where wast thou?
David Burchell (organ)
Choir of New College/Edward Higginbottom
rec. Chapel of New College, Oxford
Full English texts included
CRD 3455 [66:30]

The choir of New College, Oxford, under their widely admired director Edward Higginbottom, recorded many discs for CRD over quite a period of time, covering a versatile range of repertoire. With his recent retirement from that role, the fruitful relationship forged between choir and conductor over more than three decades can now be said to have passed into history and so such reissues by CRD provide a timely opportunity to reappraise their music-making. These discs were originally released in 1989 and 1991 (though the actual dates of recording are not stated), and among the choir were such names as Robert Hollingworth and Paul Agnew, who both provide demure solo contributions to the Credo of the Mass setting here.

Each offers a useful selection of choral and organ works by Howells; quite why the title of the second disc omits the word "organ" will remain a mystery. His many evening canticle settings, for which he is probably most famous, are not included, with one exception. The one concession here is justified on two grounds: it is the setting Howells composed for this same choir back in 1953, and, secondly, it is less characteristic of the composer in that it is largely diatonic and harmonically straightforward. It therefore reveals another aspect of his oeuvre. The choir of New College make the most of it, nonetheless, relishing the long-drawn melodies which are typical of the composer. They make the ‘Glory be’ section of the Nunc Dimittis broader than that of the Magnificat. The tempo markings are the same and the musical material is virtually identical, but the first musical phrase, second time around, is notated with longer notes, making this a plausible interpretive stance to take.

Higginbottom’s tends to concentrate on the overall architecture and effect of the music, rather than the particular moment. Other choirs might well emphasis the nuances of particular turns of phrase in either the words or music, for example the more recent recording of other Howells compositions by the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, under Christopher Robinson. But the New College choir prove highly adept at realising the quintessentially Howellsian atmosphere of quiet, thoughtful contemplation, shot through with melancholy.

The substantial anthem ‘A Sequence for St. Michael’ begins with the choir’s startling repeated address to “Michael”, undoubtedly referring as much to the composer’s deceased son as to the Archangel in Howells’s mind. From there the choir sculpt some rich and powerful chords, though they have a somewhat reedy, brittle quality. They are probably compromised by the recorded sound, which makes the choral forces seem both distant and confined here, and indeed throughout the disc. But in terms of the music itself, they are not otherwise lacking when it comes to drawing out the spacious lines of the other compositions featured. In the case of A Hymn for St. Cecilia, it has to be said, it is not until the final verse that the efficient, brisk setting of Ursula Vaughan-Williams’s words gives way to a more sustained passage with a distinctive descant over it. Except for its name, by the way, this work has nothing in common with the collaboration by Britten and W.H. Auden.

David Burchell plays the items for solo organ vividly and sympathetically: he uses dramatic and full registrations in the Flourish for a Bidding, whilst he skilfully allows the famous melody of Crown Imperial to emerge only gradually amidst the determined toccata-like figurations of Walton’s Toye. St. Louis comes to Clifton uses an old French carol which Howells showed to Ravel, and the subtle way it is handled, as well as the fact that it was composed in tribute to an organist friend who had been injured in the First World War, rather makes one think of this as a tribute to the French composer’s Tombeau de Couperin. As throughout the disc, however, it is Howells’s unique compositional voice which these performances characterise most clearly.

The performances from the choir evoke a quintessentially Howellsian melancholy and wistfulness, through their solid grasp of the long-drawn lines of the music, and absolutely secure intonation in the music’s ripe harmonies. Choirs today would probably bring out the expressive nuances within each phrase with more bite and acuity than Higginbottom allows here, where he tends to focus much more on the larger structure and the overall atmosphere of the sound produced. That is particularly evident in the well-sustained, lengthy crescendo at the opening of ‘Behold, O God our defender’, and throughout the long anthem ‘Where was thou?’. That said, the insistent repetitions of the opening question in the latter, and the graphic reiterations of “and all the sons of God shouted for joy” later on, are impressive. But it is the overall effect which emerges most strongly in these performances.

That is partly due also to the somewhat recessed sound of the choir in this recording, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish between individual choral lines, though it does create the impression of a seamlessly blended texture composed of many rich elements. In particular, the choir’s securely pitched chords fill and resonate within the chapel’s acoustic, even if it sounds like a more confined space than it is in reality. Certainly ‘Behold, O God our defender’ does not reverberate as much as it would in the setting for which it was composed, Westminster Abbey, on the occasion of Elizabeth II’s coronation. But there is a liquid fluency in the choral accompaniment of the Sanctus from the Mass setting, of ‘A Spotless Rose’, as well as in the rocking chords of ‘Sing lullaby’, one of the other carol anthems.

Contemporary choirs might also bring a greater, rapt intensity to this music, at least to some of the more introspective pieces such as the Kyrie from the Missa Aedes Christi or the carol anthems, but there is an authentic and sincere tone in their soft-grained, unshowy interpretations, as redolent of a certain indefinably English character as the taste of ale for example.

Interspersed among the choral items are Howells’s organ compositions performed by David Burchell. He generally matches the choir’s limpid, gentle way with the music by progressing with steady determination through the cumulative chordal sequences of the first Psalm Prelude, initially with airy flute registrations and then piling on the reeds. Burchell’s movement from one chord to the next is less clunky in the Prelude ‘Sine Nomine’, whilst the bold figurations of Paean are agile and vibrant, recalling Jehan Alain in style, though Burchell avoids the blowsy type of reedy registrations one would expect in French repertoire. Taken together with the other disc of Howells’ music by the same forces on the CRD label, this still affords a welcome introduction to one of the most original voices of 20th century English choral music.

Curtis Rogers

Previous reviews: Stuart Sillitoe (both) ~ Marc Rochester (3454)



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