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Herbert 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) VI. Pćan; III. Master Tallis’s Testament [12:57]
Rhapsody for Organ No.3 in C-sharp minor, Op.17/3 (1918) [6:39]
Guy Johnston (cello), Stephen Cleobury (organ)
King’s College Choir Cambridge, King’s Voices
Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Cleobury, Ben Parry, Christopher Seaman
rec. 2018/19, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Texts not included.
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0032 SACD [48:58 + 54:39]

I went straight to the Cello Concerto when this twofer appeared. John Quinn reviewed on Seen and Heard International the first public performance of the concerto at Gloucester Cathedral when Guy Johnston played it with the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra under Martin André. He also goes into valuable detail in that review about the work’s genesis and the orchestrations of Christopher Palmer and more recently Jonathan Clinch in the second and third movements respectively. What remains for me is to note that, notwithstanding the existing fine Dutton performance of Alice Neary (review), which was recorded two years before the public performance, Johnston’s reading is contextualised in an all-Howells twofer, whereas Neary’s version was coupled with the concerto by Ronald Corp – who conducts on the disc – and Howells’s two Op.20 pieces. Whether this makes things clearer or more complicated regarding a recommendation depends on couplings. But by now I’m getting ahead of myself.

The work is a worthy addition to the canon of British cello concertos. Whether Howells failed to finish it because he associated it with his son, who had died tragically young, as Christopher Palmer suggested, is less of an issue now. What one takes from it is a strong sense of characterisation. The opening’s slow pastoral lyricism, cast in the form of a fantasia, ushers in the cello’s initial ruminative entry, which sets off associations with The Lark Ascending. There is also something Delian in Howells’ writing here and something too of the elysian rapture of Julius Harrison. But Howells steadily ratchets tension and the music flares into life, tight, urgent and brooding, indeed vehement, the soloist kept busy with intricate passagework. The slow movement set me in mind of Finzi’s Introit – the central movement of his own troubled Violin Concerto, itself ignored for so many decades; it possesses something of the same rarefied beauty with lovely wind writing and cello cantilena. It takes on a memorial quality, and undoubtedly a beautiful one. The finale is something different once again; almost insouciant in places, tuneful with the cello taken low or high to cut through the orchestral texture – always the Grimpen Mire of the cello concerto. But Howells – and Clinch – traverse that mire of thickened inaudible textures and resolve the music’s disparateness successfully. This is a concerto worth getting to know, irrespective of the significant amount of editorial work that has been necessary to bring it to performance and recording. Indeed, possibly because of it.
This second disc is completed by three organ works, all performed by Stephen Cleobury - Paean, Master Tallis’s Testament and the Rhapsody No.3. The first is an exciting toccata, whilst the second is one of the six Pieces for Organ written in 1939: there would have been room for all six but Cleobury has already recorded them for Priory so perhaps he didn’t want to clash. Perhaps also he wanted to select three representative organ works from different phases of Howells’ compositional life, the Rhapsody being an early work from 1918

The main work in the first disc is An English Mass and it makes a fitting addition and alternative to Vernon Handley’s Hyperion recording [CDA66488] that first alerted listeners to this work’s variety and strength. Its element of dark ambivalence is notable, distilled in the form of a restless unease. There are, inevitably with Howells, brief moments of radiance and lyricism but despite the Hosanna’s audible beauties and the memorable grandeur of the concluding Gloria, those pessimistic elements that reside in the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei linger longest in the memory. Then performance is beautifully paced and expressively rich. So too are the final pieces, the Te Deum from Collegium Regale (1944) and the Magnificat, heard in John Rutter’s orchestration, complete with one moment of supreme radiance.

Note that the Concerto is directed by Christopher Seaman, and the Credo from the Mass was directed by Ben Parry – these were to have been conducted by Cleobury but he required heart surgery and they took his place.

There are no texts – so you may need to hunt elsewhere for them. I appreciate having detailed lists of the orchestral personnel, but texts would have been better. However, the booklet is full and powerfully informative and in English only.

The conjunction of Concerto and Mass makes this a central recommendation for Howells admirers.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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