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Herbert Norman HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Collegium Regale (1944): Te Deum [8:52]
An English Mass (1955) [35:05]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’: Magnificat (orch. John Rutter) [4:57]
Cello Concerto (ed Christopher Palmer, Jonathan Clinch) (1930s, etc.; premiere 2016) [34:59]
Six Short Pieces for Organ (1939-40) [12:57]
VI. Pan [6:14]
III. Master Tallis’s Testament [6:43]
Rhapsody for Organ No.3 in c-sharp minor, Op.17/3 (1918) [6:39]
Guy Johnston (cello), Stephen Cleobury (organ)
Britten Sinfonia, King’s College Choir Cambridge, King’s Voices/Stephen Cleobury, Ben Parry, Christopher Seaman
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 12-13 June, 28 November, 2 and 22 December 2018 and 10-11 January 2019. DDD.
Texts NOT included.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0032 SACD [48:58 + 54:39]

Comparative Recordings:

- An English Mass: HYPERION CDA66488: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir/Vernon Handley (with Hymnus Paradisi)

- Cello Concerto: DUTTON CDLX7317: Alice Neary (cello); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Ronald Corp (with Corp Cello Concerto) – review DL News 2015/11

- Collegium Regale (complete): HYPERION CDA68105: Owain Park (organ); Trinity College Choir Cambridge/Stephen Layton (with other choral works) – review review DL News 2016/5.

This new recording of Howells comes hard upon the heels of a Naxos release of his chamber music, including the String Quartet No.3 ‘in Gloucestershire’, the Piano Quartet and the recorded premiere of his Lady Audrey’s Suite (8.553913). That’s so good that I reviewed it twice, once from an mp3 source and again in preferable CD-quality lossless sound (Spring 2019/3).

Howells wrote some of the most beautiful music. Some of it is on that Naxos recording and some on the new King’s, but the influence of the awful twentieth century is never far away, with two world wars and, between them, the sudden death from polio of Howells’ son. That was the impetus for his Hymnus Paradisi, the coupling for An English Mass on the earlier Hyperion recording, but it also makes itself apparent in the agony and hopelessness of the Kyrie of the Mass and the conflicted nature of its Credo, as described in Paul Spicer’s notes with the King’s recording. It’s also involved in the history of the Cello Concerto.

On the other hand, Rhapsody No.3, which rounds off the new recording seems to show remarkable fortitude under adversity: one would never guess from its tone that it had been composed in one sleepless night in 1918 during a Zeppelin raid.

The new 2-SACD set opens with a performance of the Te Deum from Howells’ settings of the Mattins and Evensong canticles composed for King’s and labelled Collegium Regale. The music and the performance are so good that I wish that we had been given the whole set, a wish further justified by the inclusion of a fine performance of the Magnificat from the Evensong pair after the Mass. There would certainly have been room for the Jubilate, Nunc Dimittis, and the short setting of Holy Communion on the first, short, disc. Good as the Layton recording (above) is, I enjoyed hearing the Te Deum and Magnificat even more from the choir to which they were dedicated.

Failing their appearance here, it would be appreciated if Decca were to reissue Cleobury’s earlier recording for Argos of the complete Regale set (4302052 – available as a Presto CD and an Arkiv CD and to download). Subscribers can stream that from Naxos Music Library.

There is only one rival recording of An English Mass, on a third Hyperion recording, listed above. I’ve referred to that with approval many times as containing a very worthwhile alternative to my prime recommendation for Hymnus Paradisi, from Richard Hickox on Chandos. The appeal of the Hickox has been considerably increased by its reissue at mid-price and the unavailability in a readily available format of the EMI Willcocks recording (CHAN10717X – review review Spring 2019/2 – why are some dealers still offering the full-price original – review?)

The new King’s recording neatly solves the dilemma, with a very fine recording of the Mass as the centrepiece of the first SACD. I keep thinking of thee King’s recordings as they appear in the year of Stephen Cleobury’s imminent departure as a fitting end to his distinguished tenure; this is by no means least among them.

I’m pleased that he plays the organ, too, on SACD2. Again, however, as with the canticles, I would have welcomed all six pieces of the 1939/40 collection – once more, there would have been room for the other four, and more, on a short disc. I haven’t been able to hear the Priory CD on which Cleobury offers all four rhapsodies and two sets of psalm preludes; we seem not to have reviewed it, but it has been well received elsewhere and it would make a fine supplement to the new recordings (PRCD480).

I’ve mentioned short length, but I must not give the impression that King’s are being mean: the two SACDs are offered for around 13, currently reduced by Presto to 11.75. It’s a measure of the vagaries of pricing, however, which I harp on incessantly, that you can pay much more for these SACDs. The 16-bit download from Hyperion costs a very reasonable 9.25, but the 24-bit, at 13.90, is rather expensive by comparison with the SACDs.

The Cello Concerto has a complex history. The first movement is all Howells, but the rest was never completed until first Christopher Palmer, and Jonathan Clinch after Palmer’s death, reworked the foul papers for the second and third movements respectively. John Quinn tells the full story in his review – link above – so I shall merely say here that the result holds together convincingly.

Ronald Corp took the opportunity of conducting the Dutton recording to include his own, much lighter cello concerto. As a lover of English light music, I enjoyed both works on that recording, but I can imagine that many will prefer to have the Howells in an all-Howells context here. I have seen the concerto, which, like Hymnus Paradisi, arose from Howells’ grief at the death of his son, in terms which make it seem grim and ghastly. It’s certainly not a bundle of fun but, perhaps because of the quality of the Dutton performance, I found it by no means dull and dreary. Nor did I find it so from the new recording where again it finds very able advocates in the form of cellist Guy Johnston and conductor Christopher Seaman, with the able assistance of the Britten Sinfonia.

Both soloist and conductor are King’s alumni. Johnston, who began his career as a treble, has appeared on a number of recordings, most recently – and convincingly – in Holst’s Invocation (Chandos CHSA5192 – review). I’m very pleased to hear him here in the much longer work, of which he gave the premiere in Gloucester Cathedral (Seen and Heard review).

The organ works which round off SACD2 in Stephen Cleobury’s capable hands are no less welcome and certainly don’t sound as if tacked on as an afterthought. Though the three parts of this 2-SACD release, choral, concerto and organ, seem rather disparate, they make up a recording which should appeal to the many lovers of Howells’ music and ought to make him new friends. The performances are all that could be desired and, with the King’s engineers having overcome the acoustic vagaries of their chapel, the recording is very good, especially in 24-bit format, which augurs well for the SACDs.

It seems incredible that King’s could not spare room in their detailed and praiseworthy booklet for the texts of the vocal works. I have them readily to hand but not everyone owns the equivalent of my battered copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer now that the language of the shopping list has taken over the liturgies of the Roman and Anglican churches. If space was an issue, perhaps they should have ditched some of the colour photographs. This is now the second time that no texts have been offered; the same problem mitigates my appreciation of The Music of King’s (KGS0034 – Spring 2019/2).

Reservations apart, this now becomes my first choice for Howells’ An English Mass and the Cello Concerto and it comes with several attractive bonuses to boot. I hope that it will help to boost appreciation of Howells’ music. This recording of An English Mass might well, for example, lead you to the Chandos recording of Howells’ other setting, Missa Sabrinensis (Chandos CHAN241-27, 2 CDs for the price of one, with Stabat Materreview DL Roundup June 2011/2).

Brian Wilson

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