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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Missa Sabrinensis (1954) [67:12]
Michael ‘A Fanfare Setting’ (arr. Howells, completed & revised by Christopher Palmer and David Hill) [4:19]
Helena Dix (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)
The Bach Choir
BBC Concert Orchestra/David Hill
rec. 2019, Town Hall, Watford, UK
HYPERION CDA68294 [71:32]

Paul Spicer, familiar to record collectors as the conductor of the Finzi Singers and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, was a pupil of Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music in the early 1970s. A biography (Seren Books, 1998) is only one of his many published writings on the composer. In a thoughtful passage about the Missa Sabrinensis, he has this to say: ‘The sadness is that its technical difficulties, however justified, will prevent it ever entering the repertory, so it is unlikely to get the kind of performance it has so far lacked.’ This is doubly regrettable because, as he later observes, ‘… Howells has to be heard and not simply read.’

Another inspired and inspiring commentator on Howells, as well as other musical matters wide and numerous, was the late Christopher Palmer. His short study of Howells was published by Novello in 1978. He may well have been present when David Willcocks revived the Missa Sabrinensis with the Bach Choir in 1982, but when he was writing his book the work had received only two performances, neither of them very successful, and both while Palmer was still a child. He had no choice, therefore, but to read rather than hear. I have had the luxury of doing both. With that in mind, this quote reveals some aspects of Palmer’s view of the work, gleaned from studying the score. He writes: ‘… in certain places Howells has allowed his facility in the creation of vast labyrinthine networks of polyphonic relationships to gain the upper hand; momentarily he becomes the servant rather than the master of his technique. There are instances of textural congestion where one feels that a drastic re-thinking of the entire choral-orchestral polyphonic complex alone would provide the necessary relief. Yet there are many areas where this prevailing density of texture is endemic to the choked intensity of feeling which the composer is seeking to articulate.’ This view is pretty much in line with my own.

Despite this element of reserve, the Missa Sabrinensis is, none the less, a towering masterpiece. Its title can be translated as ‘Severn Mass’, referring to the river that traverses Gloucestershire, the county of Howells’s birth, important to him throughout his long life. For a detailed description of the work, and of Hyperion’s short coupling, readers are directed to reviews by my MusicWeb colleagues Brian Wilson and John Quinn. Suffice to say here that the work is monumental, highly dramatic, and with no liturgical feeling at all. Much of the Kyrie (‘Lord, have mercy upon us’) and the prayer for peace which is the Agnus Dei, is anguished, a feeling expressed through bitter chromaticism. On the other hand, the Gloria is a thrilling torrent of celebratory joy, much of which is continued in the following Credo, to the extent that one sometimes craves a little relief from such an emotional outpouring. The work is heavily scored, with the choir rarely silent, and the soloists given little opportunity to shine on their own. The music is primarily contrapuntal, so that when a passage of homophonic writing occurs, logically at the words ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’, for instance – the result is music of stunning force. There are moments of repose, to be sure: the joyful Hosannas at the end of the Sanctus are allowed to subside gently into music of calm and sweetness, for example. But Palmer’s memorable formula, ‘choked intensity’, seems appropriate for much, perhaps most, of the work.

Paul Spicer, when he wrote his book, had the advantage of knowing the 1994 Chandos recording conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Whilst saluting its pioneering qualities, he does not hesitate to draw attention to what he sees as its imperfections. This new performance from the Bach Choir uses a score newly prepared by Spicer and the conductor, David Hill. Wrong notes in the hand copied original scores have been corrected, and dynamics clarified in order to bring out the orchestra’s contrapuntal lines. Spicer has also written that this new performance is more respectful of the composer’s tempo indications. If only for these reasons, this new performance is to be preferred. Yet I wouldn’t want to be without the earlier performance. Rozhdestvensky was notoriously relaxed in respect to detail, but you have to listen very closely to hear any slips in this performance. The soloists, choir and orchestra – fabulous London Symphony Orchestra trumpets in the Gloria – are outstanding. The recording is, to my ears, more analytical than the Hyperion, and I prefer the balance. Rozhdestvensky takes fully nine minutes more over the work than does Hill, and it is certainly arguable that certain passages – ‘Qui tollis’ and ‘et vitam venturi’, for instance – are too slow. But this listener, at least, welcomes such passages as oases of calm in what can be an exhaustingly driven work.

Howells’s ‘Severn Mass’ is an unquestionable masterpiece and an extraordinarily challenging work to perform. It is presented here newly edited and authentic, and David Hill and his forces provide us with a superb reading. The work is endlessly fascinating, however, so I’d like to suggest, and not only to Howells enthusiasts, that you will gain much by having both recorded versions to choose from and to compare.

William Hedley
Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ John Quinn

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