Stanford and Howells Remembered
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Evening Canticles in G (1904) [7:40]
When Mary thro’ the garden went (1910) [3:28]
I heard a voice from heaven (1910) [4:59]
Latin Magnificat, Op 164 (1918) [11:12]
Evening Canticles in B flat (1879) [6:42]
O for a closer walk (1909) [3:19]
Te Deum in C (1909) [7:29]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1882)
The Gloucester Service (1946) [10:44]
The fear of the Lord (1976) [5:20]
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks (1941) [5;29]
Long, long ago (1950) [4:44]
All my hope on God is founded [3:22]
The Cambridge Singers/John Rutter
Wayne Marshall (organ)
rec. 1992, Ely Cathedral, UK DDD
COLLEGIUM RECORDS CSCD524 [45:10 + 48:01]
In 1992 Collegium issued a single-disc recording by John Rutter and The Cambridge Singers. Entitled ‘I will lift up mine eyes’, it combined music by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and his pupil, Herbert Howells (COLCD118). I bought it at the time and enjoyed it very much. Now, the recordings have been remastered and reissued as a double-CD set with the addition of some material which was recorded at the same time but has never been issued before. There are three performances appearing on disc for the first time: The ‘Nunc dimittis’ from Stanford’s G major Canticles; Howells’ ‘Nunc dimittis’ from his Gloucester Service; and Stanford’s very fine Latin Magnificat. The original release blended music of the two composers within the programme but for this re-release each composer has been allocated a separate CD, a sensible re-ordering.
The pairing of these two composers is a neat one. In an introductory note, John Rutter draws attention to some of the links between them, including the extent to which both enriched the music of the English Church. He reminds us that “Stanford referred to Howells as his ‘son in music’, and Howells, to his death, wore the signet ring that Stanford had bequeathed him’.
The Stanford element of this collection includes two of the six settings that he made of the Evening Canticles. The B flat ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ is his earliest setting. The ‘Mag’ is fluent and joyful, while the ‘Nunc’ – for male voices only until the ‘Glory be’ – has a very natural nobility. The G major Magnificat has the famous rippling organ right-hand line, suggestive of a spinning wheel. The soprano soloist, Caroline Ashton, has a somewhat piping tone but her singing is crystal clear: the performance as a whole is fresh and enjoyable. Newly issued as part of this release is the Nunc dimittis, which benefits from the good, clear baritone soloist, Simon Davies. Towards the end of his career Stanford made a standalone setting of the Magnificat for a cappella double choir, opting for the Latin text of the canticle. It’s a masterly composition in which the writing is often indebted, as a homage, to Bach. John Rutter and his singers deliver an excellent performance which is responsive to Stanford’s different modes of musical expression as the text unfolds. This is another of the previously unreleased tracks and its inclusion here is very welcome.
I heard a voice from heaven dates from 1910 but in fact it is an extended version of an anthem which Stanford had written in 1886 for the funeral of a Cambridge friend. The 1910 revision is a lovely, sincere piece and here it receives a beautifully shaped performance. By contrast, the Te Deum in C, which is part of Stanford’s C major Service, is mainly celebratory in tone. It’s a compact setting in which the melodic invention is of a very high quality; it must be really gratifying to sing. The Cambridge Singers turn in an impressive account of it; their singing has all the energy that the music demands.
The Requiem is, in many ways, the centrepiece of the Howells section of the programme, even if it does come first on the CD. As we are reminded in the booklet, Christopher Palmer established that the work was not a direct response to the tragically early death of the composer’s son, Michael in 1935; he had begun to sketch it as early as 1932. However, surely the loss of his son impelled Howells to complete this intensely beautiful short work. What is certain is that material from the Requiem, especially movements 2, 3 and 6, found their way into Howells’ supreme masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi, where the material was elaborated and brought to perfection. Thank goodness, though, that Howells released the Requiem for publication in 1980 for it is a very fine work in its own right. Rutter and his choir do it very well. However, I do wonder if at times Rutter could have allowed the music a fraction more space. At 17:55 his is one of the swiftest versions overall that I can recall hearing. Most of the recordings I have in my collection play for more than 20 minutes. Coming back to this Rutter performance after some time, I also noticed that the singers are recorded quite closely. This has undoubted benefits – for example, in the third movement, ‘Requiem aeternam I’ where you can hear all of Howells’ wonderful harmonic strands. However, some other recordings, such as those by Stephen Layton (review) and the first-ever recording of the work, by the Corydon Singers and Matthew Best, put a bit more distance between the choir and the listener. That distance, I think, gives even more of an ambience than we get on this Cambridge Singers recording. Make no mistake, though, the present performance is sensitive and expertly sung. The work is deeply poignant and very beautiful; John Rutter and his choir do it justice. The score calls for a number of solos from within the choir and without exception these are really well taken.
Howells’ Gloucester Service celebrates the Cathedral where, as an articled pupil of Sir Herbert Brewer, he began to learn his craft. This set of Evening Canticles really stirs the spirits; it is, I believe, one of Howells’ finest achievements in the genre and given that he wrote some twenty fine sets of canticles, that’s saying something. In this performance the limpid, feminine beauty of the Magnificat’s opening pages are beautifully conveyed by the ladies of The Cambridge Singers. The wonderful lines of the ‘Glory be’ soar as if they were being borne aloft to the glorious ceiling of Gloucester Cathedral itself; here, in Ely Cathedral, the organ contributes imposingly. The Nunc dimittis couldn’t be fitted onto the original disc but it’s here now. The tranquil ecstasy of the start comes over well and when the music blazes at ‘to be the glory of thy people Israel’, it’s a thrilling moment.
John Rutter has a special connection with the anthem The fear of the Lord, which sets words from the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Between 1975 and 1979 he was Director of Music at his alma mater, Clare College, Cambridge. This Howells anthem was composed in celebration of Clare College’s 650th anniversary in 1976; the booklet reproduces the front page of the manuscript, bearing the dedication to Rutter and the Clare choir. In the notes the anthem is rightly described as “highly charged”. The writing contains challenging harmonies and counterpoint and is full of vigour; at the age of 83 Howells had lost none of his musical energy. That said, towards the end of the text, at the words ‘Whoso feareth the Lord, it shall go well with him’ the music becomes subdued and searching and it is in this vein that this impressive late work draws to a close.
In complete contrast is the mellifluous Like as the hart, deservedly one of Howells’ best-loved works. The selection ends with another of his great gifts to liturgical music: the hymn All my hope on God is founded. The splendidly sturdy and confident tune was named for Howells’ son, Michael – it was composed some time before his death. Here it is sung with the addition of an excellent last verse descant written by John Rutter in 1977, of which Howells is known to have approved.
This newly expanded programme of music by Stanford and Howells contains a great deal of fine music. The performances are uniformly excellent. The Cambridge Singers was an ensemble that John Rutter founded in the early 1980s which included, at least initially, alumni of various Cambridge collegiate choirs, many of them from Clare College. It was interesting to look down the list of singers who made these recordings in 1992 and see a good few names who have subsequently become very familiar, either as soloists or as members of some of the UK’s crack chamber choirs. Among several names I recognised were the tenor Mark LeBrocq and the bass Christopher Purves. Throughout the performances the choir’s internal balance is excellent, as is the blend. The choir is very polished and makes a collective sound which is very pleasing to hear. Wayne Marshall makes a predictably distinguished contribution in the pieces that require an organ.
The recordings were principally made in the wonderful Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, a favourite recording venue for John Rutter; for the items requiring an organ, the team moved into the main cathedral to join Wayne Marshall. The sound is very good throughout, notwithstanding my mild reservation about the closeness of the voices to the microphones. I stress, though, that that reservation only applied in comparison with certain other recordings; heard in isolation, I think anyone will find the sound on these discs eminently satisfactory.
Understandably, the notes are largely the same ones which accompanied the original CD though additions have been made to reflect the extra items. The notes, which are excellent, are anonymous apart from the introductory essay but I strongly suspect John Rutter is the author.
Incorporating some welcome new material, this is a desirable reissue which will give a lot of pleasure.