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The House of the Mind
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1981)
Behold, O God our Defender [4.06]
Hymn for St. Cecilia [3.17]
God be in my head [1.34]
The House of the Mind [9.22]
Like as a Hart [5.58]
Regina Caeli [3.14]
Salve Regina [4.31]
David BEDNALL (b.1979)
O Lord I am not haughty [5.25]
Alma Remptoris Mater [5.20]
Ave regina Caelorum [4.20]
Ralph VAUGHAN-WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Souls of the righteous [3.13]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Lighten our Darkness [3.55]
Nico MUHLY (b.1981)
Like as a hart [5.37]
Patrick HADLEY (1899-1973)
My Beloved Spake [3.28]
John SCOTT (b.1930)
Behold O God our defender [2.28]
The Choir of Queen’s College, Oxford / Owen Reese
rec. 2017, Church of St. Michael and All Angels & Chapel of Keble College, Oxford

The star of this CD is Herbert Howells – not that his music, especially his sacred works, is necessarily unfamiliar. Here, however, have a) works which are much less often performed like Hymn to the Virgin and b) a younger generation acknowledging him as an influence and an outstanding master of the genre. John Scott for example, readily admits that Howells’ rarely heard setting of Behold O God our defender, written for the Queen’s coronation, has informed his own, shorter perhaps and less severe setting of the same words.

In addition we have a fine choir under the direction of Owen Rees, an extremely accomplished choral director who has been making recordings now for well over twenty years. He has specialised in renaissance Portuguese music but he is a musician who clearly feels free to move around in a more contemporary repertoire.

In his book on Herbert Howells, Paul Spicer (Seren Press 1998) points out that at his ‘Grammar school Howells was put in charge of music for morning prayers’. So right from the start he was destined to contribute to church music, although his early pieces tend towards chamber works and include several pieces for orchestra. And this was the case until he was nearly fifty. But I often feel that his vocal works involving the full organ give the impression of a powerful orchestral texture, as in the wonderful climax of Like as a hart, even though it is not ‘forte’. The choir conveys Howells’ power and textures with clarity and understanding.

The same text has been set by Nico Muhly and there is a rare opportunity to compare his approach. Percussion and a violin are utilized to add an almost watery atmosphere of originality and delicacy, though how likely we are to hear it as part of a cathedral evensong I cannot imagine.

Only two of Howells’s early settings in Latin survive from a collection of four he wrote for Richard Terry at Westminster Cathedral during World War 1: the Regina Caeli and a Salve Regina. Owen Rees, who seems to have supplied the extensive booklet essay, has therefore commissioned David Bednall, organist at Queen’s College, to supply the two missing Latin texts – the Alma Redemptoris Mater and the Ave Regina Caelorum. He incorporates a few melodic and formulaic ideas found in the Howells settings. These four tracks end the CD. Although Bednall does not have that same sense of ecstasy which is encased in all Howells, he does possess a sense of relevant and glowing counterpoint and an ability to capture a timeless, ancient atmosphere. The latter motet brings the disc to an auspiciously glorious ending. There is also a sense of Howells’s harmonic language in Bednall’s very moving setting of Psalm 131, O Lord I am not haughty.

Other composers represented are each associated with Howells. Stanford, his professor at the RCM, provides a wonderful setting of that evensong prayer Lighten our darkness written, interestly, after the Howells motets. There’s the famous wedding anthem My Beloved Spake by Howells’ friend Patrick Hadley and of course Vaughan Williams, whose Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis had so affected Howells at its first performance at the Three Choirs Festival in 1910. Paul Spicer reminds us in his book that after the performance “Howells and Gurney wandered the streets of Gloucester for hours, unwilling to return home and unable to sleep”

The recording gains its title from the longest work on the disc, Howells’ The House of the Mind. This is a setting of a poem by Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699) the sort of metaphysical poet whom Howells so loved and felt at home setting. It was written in 1954 at the time of Howells’s full maturity and at the point when his reputation as a sacred music composer had reached its apogee. There is one of those wonderfully poised organ parts accompanying it. It has all his fingerprints, as has the wonderful chipping from his workshop, the a capella, God be in my head written, we read, quickly at the end of a theory lesson!

It is, then, a very fine and enjoyable experience to listen to this well planned collection of British sacred music. The choir are very impressive. One would like clearer diction sometimes but intonation, rich tone quality and commitment are of a very high standard.

Gary Higginson

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