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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Missa Sabrinensis (1953/4) [67:06]
Michael: A Fanfare Setting (All my hope on God is founded) (arr. Howells, completed and revised by Christopher Palmer (1992) and David Hill [4:16]
Helena Dix (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Bach Choir
BBC Concert Orchestra/David Hill
rec. Watford Town Hall, 10-12 May 2019. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.
HYPERION CDA68294 [71:22]

I’m pleased to see that Herbert Howells has been receiving more attention recently. King’s College Cambridge on their in-house label recently gave us a fine recording of his Cello Concerto and An English Mass (KGS0032 – review review) and Hyperion have certainly not neglected his music, with the Requiem and other music on CDA67914: Recording of the Month – review DL Roundup 2012/2, the Collegium Regale settings and other works on CDA68105 – review review DL News 2016/5, The Winchester Service and other late works on CDA67853: Recording of the Month – review, and Hymnus Paradisi on CDA66488. Earlier Hyperion recordings of his choral music are on CDA67494 – review – and The St Paul’s Service and other works on Dyad two-for one CDD22038. For the last three please see June 2011/2.

Howells’ best-known output was in the choral field, as on the new recording, but his String Quartet No.3 is coupled with three rhapsodies by Sir George Dyson on CDH55045 – review. That wonderful recording has now been relegated to the Archive Service, where it’s available as a CDR, or as a lossless download with pdf booklet for £8.99 from hyperion-records.co.uk. Piano Concerto No.2, the Concerto for string orchestra and Three Dances are on CDH55205 – review; that’s another relegation to the Archive Service or available as a lossless download with pdf booklet for £7.99 from hyperion-records.co.uk. John McCabe’s recording of Howells’ piano arrangements of Lambert’s clavichord music on CDH55152 – review – can be obtained for £5.00 on CD or as a lossless download from hyperion-records.co.uk.

The early music for violin and piano is on CDH55139. Paul Spicer mentioned that recording in his interview with John Quinn, but we seem not to have reviewed it. Let me say that, as downloaded in lossless sound with pdf from hyperion-records.co.uk, for £6.50 (same price for the CD), while it may not be the most essential of Hyperion’s recordings of Howells’ music, and it’s atypical of his later style, it is nevertheless very enjoyable – a four-star-plus rosette from the Penguin Guide. It’s superseded by a recording on EM Records only in the sense that the latter offers restorations of the opening of Sonata No.1 and contains the original and final versions of No.2 (EMRCD019/020: Recording of the Month – review review).

Chandos, too, have done well by Howells and his music. In the case of the Missa Sabrinensis Hyperion are competing with my comparative recording: Chandos CHAN241-27 (2 CDs for price of one, with Stabat Mater, LSO and Chorus/Gennady Rozhdesvensky – review DL Roundup June 2011/2). It’s not direct competition; the Chandos twofer comes effectively at budget price, around £10.50 for the two CDs or £9.99 for the lossless download with pdf booklet from chandos.net. It’s more than remarkable that a Russian conductor should so effectively have captured music so redolent of Howells’ beloved landscape, less remarkable that David Hill should excel even that fine recording.

It’s no accident that the work is given the Latin name of the River Severn; ‘Sabrina fair’ is the tutelary nymph of the river, who appears in Milton’s Comus, performed at Ludlow Castle. This Mass was commissioned by David Willcocks, then organist and choirmaster at Worcester Cathedral for the 1954 Three Choirs Festival. Worcester stands, as Howells put it, ‘sentinel on the same noble river’, but his connection with the Severn runs deeper than that, from his birth at Lydney and his early training in Gloucester.

Throughout the work, the influence of the English Pastoral School is evident, especially that of his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis had set his head abuzz – and many other heads, including my own when I first heard it; it still has that effect, especially as heard in Sir John Barbirolli’s classic HMV recording (Warner, download only, or Beulah 1PS42: Recommended – Spring 2019/2). But there’s no slavish imitation here; Howells makes that style completely his own. I’ve recently been listening to Sir James MacMillan’s recent works, The Sun Danced and Symphony No.5 and remarked in my review on the same phenomenon in his music: influences from the composers whom he most admires, but completely absorbed in his own style. For MacMillan, as for Vaughan Williams and Howells before him, those influences include the music of the renaissance – in his case the Scots composer Robert Carver rather than Tallis.

Howells employs the Mass form, which he regarded along with the Passion as texts as ‘superlative … for a musical setting’, to evoke a wide range of moods and one imagines that Willcocks, its begetter, might have been its ideal interpreter. That first performance, however, was under the composer’s own direction and there were subsequent performances directed by Sir Malcolm Sargent, but then, surprisingly, there were no more outings until 1982.

Howells is usually described as an atheist and Vaughan Williams as an agnostic, albeit that VW seems more akin to the ‘Christian agnosticism’ of Thomas Hardy. Whatever the label, both tap into a root of deep spirituality in their music, and Missa Sabrinensis is no exception. The quiet opening of the Kyrie establishes that from the start, thanks to the excellent solo contributions and the sympathetic support of the choir, orchestra and conductor. Only Roderick Williams, a versatile singer in anything from Monteverdi to Britten, is at all familiar among the soloists, but all contribute to the atmosphere as the music here rises and falls. If I single out Helena Dix, that’s because she is, I believe, making her recording debut; I look forward to hearing much more of her – and all the others. The notes mention the influence of Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g minor, but there’s more than a hint, too, of the end of Symphony No.3 – all, however, absorbed into Howells’ individual voice.

After that, the opening of the Gloria comes as a contrast, but the ebullience of that opening is restrained as the section progresses, moving, as Jonathan Clinch’s excellent notes indicate, comparatively slowly, and often sounding surprisingly low-key, though the conclusion is as impassioned as you might wish.

It’s paradoxically in the Credo that the most ebullient writing is to be found, that detailed statement of faith which one might have thought that Howells would have had to wrestle with, instead of the ‘power and confidence’ which it displays. (I’m indebted to the notes again, which I recommend reading; booklets are available to all comers from the Hyperion website.)

The Sanctus opens with a meditative orchestral introduction and even when the choir enters there’s none of the sense of the outpouring of the heavenly host that might be expected – such as Fauré evokes in his Requiem. Where Fauré gives us the sun bursting out from the clouds, the mood here is more akin to that of the prophet Isaiah, awed by the seraphim singing these words, Holy, Holy, Holy, in the presence of God. Nor does the Benedictus evoke the enthusiasm of the children of Israel welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; once again I found myself thinking of the end of Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, and I’m certainly not complaining about that.

The Agnus Dei opens in yearning mood, but with links to the Kyrie and Benedictus. David Hill moves the music along a little faster than Rozhdestvensky, here and in general, but there’s never any sense that it’s being hurried.

I usually complain about placing short pieces after the major work, but on this occasion I’m very happy for the arrangement of the hymn tune Michael – named after Howells’ son who died from polio, for whom the Hymnus Paradisi was composed – to play us out in blazing style. When Archbishop Cranmer revised his first (1549) Book of Common Prayer in 1552, he transferred the Gloria from the start of the service to the end, presumably wanting to go out on a triumphant note. Concluding this recording of the Missa Sabrinensis with the festal version of this hymn serves that purpose equally well.

The connection with Willcocks is maintained on this recording by the presence of the Bach Choir, which he founded and conducted for many years, in as fine a form as in their heyday. (The other Willcocks connection with Howells’ music is maintained in the King’s recording which I mentioned at the beginning.) If the Bach Choir’s Howells credentials are already well established by their singing on the Naxos recording of the Stabat Mater (8.573176 – review review DL News 2014/11), so are those of David Hill, who directs them on that recording. I’ve already expressed my admiration for the solo singing on the new recording, and for the orchestral contribution from the BBC Concert Orchestra, not often regarded as a top-rate ensemble except in light music, but adding to the success of this release as effectively as the LSO on the Chandos recording.

The Chandos recording still sounds well, but, especially in 24-bit format, the Hyperion has the edge on it, easily but comfortably capturing a wide dynamic range. Some modern SACD and 24-bit recordings are so wide-ranging that it’s impossible to get the volume right; that’s not a problem here, or with Hyperion in general. At £13.50, 24-bit is a little more expensive than the CD, which costs £10.50 from Hyperion, with 16-bit lossless sound at a very reasonable £8.99. The Chandos twofer adds the Stabat Mater, but you may already have the Naxos recording of that, with the Bach Choir and David Hill, as on the new Missa Sabrinensis.

If you don’t know Howells’ music, this splendid new recording of one of his most powerful works is likely to win new friends, who will want to investigate further the many very fine Hyperion recordings listed above, and those on Chandos and Naxos.

Brian Wilson



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