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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Piano Music – Volume 1
Phantasy (1917) [4:57]
Harlequin Dreaming (1918) [3:21]
My Lord Harewood's Galliard (1949) [1:08]
Finzi: His Rest (1956) [4:22]
Summer Idyls (1911) [23:36]
Siciliana (1958) [3:11]
Pavane and Galliard (1964) [7:23]
Petrus Suite (1967-73) [17:21]
Matthew Schellhorn (piano)
rec. 2019, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D'Abernon, UK
All first recordings
NAXOS 8.571382 [66:01]

Hiding in plain sight for all these years has been the piano music of Herbert Howells. Ask aficionados of early British 20th Century Piano music and the usual names of Bax, Ireland, Bridge with perhaps Scott and Bowen will come up for sure. But Howells? - surely not, wasn't he really a church composer? Of course, that latter supposition has been long consigned to the generalisations-of-musical-history bin with the recording of his large scale orchestral and choral works. However, I for one had no idea that he had written a significant amount of keyboard music too. Clearly I was not alone in that state of ignorance as this excellent hour long recital of his music by pianist Matthew Schellhorn contains twenty one tracks all of which are world premiere recordings. Tantalisingly this is called "Volume 1" and apparently there is easily enough additional music for a second volume. I assume that would not include the best known Howells keyboard works; the two sets of Lambert's Clavichord and Howells' Clavichord. Those works have been previously recorded complete and Margaret Fingerhut included four of the former in her Chandos survey in 1994. Jeremy Filsell shared a programme of Howells with Bernard Stevens but that is pretty much it for Howells' piano music on disc - until now.

For Howells fans and British piano music collectors this is an important release. Of particular fascination is wide span of the years covered. From the Summer Idyls [sic] written as part of Howells' student submission to the Royal College of Music for an open scholarship aged just eighteen, to the Petrus Suite completed in 1973 written for students of the same institution. The programme has been presented in almost chronological order. Except for placing the 1911 Summer Idyls - which happens to be the longest grouped work - in the middle of the disc, the music runs from the 1917 Phantasy through to the aforementioned Petrus Suite. The fascination for the listener coming to this wholly unfamiliar music is to hear how Howells both developed in some ways but also - aesthetically as much as anything else - remained true to himself over sixty years of composing. In none of these works does Howells seek display or drama as an end to itself. For a young composer the Idyls are a model of restraint and control. Elsewhere, textures are kept clean and lucid, harmony is often astringent with that bright ringing quality that is a recurring feature of all Howells' music. The temperament of the music often seems more closely allied to a French neo-Classicism rather than English pastoralism. Howells scholar and expert Jonathan Clinch in his liner (he was also responsible alongside Schellhorn for the performing editions of the manuscripts recorded here) references the story of Howells and Ivor Gurney attending the first performance of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia in 1910 which had such an impact on the young composer with its timeless absorption of Tudor music. That is a feature that Howells likewise absorbed into much of his keyboard music - there are frequent titles that reflect this influence; this disc alone contains two Galliards, a Pavane, a Gavotte, two Minuets a Siciliana and Finzi: His Rest. However, to think that any of these pieces are some pale pastiches of music from an earlier age is quite wrong. Howells takes the spirit of the earlier age but distils that through a modern sensibility and approach to form and harmony to produce music that is in the best sense timeless.

With the earlier works, for sure the process is less complete and one is not quite sure if the young composer's style is yet able to shine through the powerful influence of the composers he sought to emulate. Clinch calls the 1917 Phantasy "the most successful Ravel-pastiche by a British composer". Without doubt, it is greatly enjoyable and very Ravelian. I wonder why Howells chose "Phantasy" as a title given that in 1917 this was the height of the Cobbett Phantasy competition with that spelling a distinct nod towards its English heritage rather than anything French - that said its does not seem to be a Phantasy in the Cobbett-derived sense of the word. The seven movements of Sumer Idyls are a gorgeous sequence of lyrical musical watercolours. Clinch is surely right to mention the benevolent influence of Schumann or Grieg as well as Debussy - the latter especially in June Haze [track 7]. He also cites admiration for Rachmaninov showing through in the fourth movement - Down the Hills. I must admit I find that connection slightly more tenuous given that 1910/11 was when the Russian composer was producing the second set of Preludes and the first set of Études-Tableaux both of which aim for a greater sweep and substance than Howells. I find it more interesting that the young Howells chose not to produce any music for his scholarship submission that made any backward glance to his experience with the Tallis Fantasia. This is altogether simpler in the best sense - far less fraught than works being written by many of his British contemporaries. That said - pre-dating these early works, I was put in mind of the sets and suites of music by Harry Farjeon which included amongst much else A Summer Suite and Two Idylls the latter from 1910. The young Howells has a keener harmonic sense than Farjeon but they somehow inhabit a similar emotional landscape.

As programmed, there is a thirty one year gap from the 1918 Harlequin Dreaming to the 1949 My Lord Harewood's Galliard. This has a Poulenc-ian neo-classicism and was part of a pair of works - the accompanying Pavane is currently lost - written for the Earl of Harewood as a wedding gift. His friendship with the composer Gerald Finzi is memorialised in Finzi: His Rest, which along with the 1964 Pavane & Galliard show Howells' piano writing at its most personal and emotionally charged - the former comprises the longest single work on the disc. This is where he achieves the most sophisticated balance between the Renaissance idiom and the 20th Century harmony and sensibility. Howells taught at the Royal College of Music for over half a century, and much of his piano music seems to have fulfilled a pedagogical role. The Petrus Suite has already been mentioned as one such example as are the powerful Pavane & Galliard and equally impressive 1958 Siciliana. Although I doubt these works would tax a dedicated Conservatoire student in purely technical terms, there is an understated sophistication and wisdom in the apparent simplicity of the writing that could elude many a player.

Fortunately in Matthew Schellhorn, Howells has found an ideal musical champion and interpreter. His playing, from the gentle lyricism of Meadow Rest to the breezy good humour of the Toccatina which closes the Petrus Suite, is a model of clarity, beautifully poised and articulate music making. Throughout, this recital there is exhibited a perfect balance of academic rigour allied to musical sensitivity. In an interesting performer's note in the liner, Schellhorn relates how he and Jonathan Clinch have sifted through all the Howells scores both published and in manuscript. The latter presented challenges in the form of Howells' often indecipherable score-writing and idiosyncratic approach to indicating expression and dynamics which forced performance choices to be made. All that can be said is that the results never sound anything except completely convincing.

The production and engineering by Rachel Smith and Ben Connellan are likewise excellent. They have caught Schellhorn's piano with an airy clarity that suits the music very well. There is weight and power when the music requires it, but the abiding sense of this recital is of precision and poise. This music does reveal another facet of Howells the composer. Do not expect the sweep and power revealed in the large choral works as, in the main, this is Howells the miniaturist. But small in scale should not suggest slight in stature. As a project this has been supported by various individuals and organisations and as such it displays its quality at every turn. Naxos have proved to be strong advocates of Howells' music in recent years and this is another significant addition to their catalogue. It goes without saying that Volume two at least is eagerly awaited and perhaps after that Schellhorn will investigate more of the forgotten byways of British Piano repertoire.

Musically delightful and historically significant, this is an excellent disc in every respect.

Nick Barnard

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