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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Missa Sabrinensis [67:12]
Michael ‘A Fanfare Setting’ (arr. Howells, completed & revised by Christopher Palmer & 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, Watford Town Hall
Texts included
HYPERION CDA68294 [71:32]

With this recording David Hill completes his recordings of Herbert Howells’ three largest choral/orchestral scores. He’s already given us very fine versions of Hymnus Paradisi (review) and the Stabat Mater (review). Now, with a change of label to Hyperion, we have the work that comes chronologically between them in the Howells canon.

After much persuasion, Howells was prevailed upon to release Hymnus Paradisi for performance at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. The success of that work encouraged David Willcocks, Organist of Worcester Cathedral (1950-1957) to commission a new work from Howells for the 1954 Festival at Worcester. The result was a large-scale setting of the Mass for SATB soloists, chorus and orchestra. The title, Missa Sabrinensis (Mass of the Severn) was aptly chosen, as Jonathan Clinch reminds us: Howells had been born in Lydney, the market town in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean which stands by the River Severn; his early musical education was received some twenty-two miles upstream in Gloucester Cathedral; and Worcester Cathedral, where his new work would be heard for the first time, stands proudly on the very banks of the Severn, rising proudly above the river.

In 2015 I interviewed Peter Hillier, who sang in the Three Choirs Festival Chorus for 50 years consecutively, starting in 1953. In his second festival the premiere of Missa Sabrinensis was conducted by the composer and Peter recalled ‘when Herbert Howells took the baton up at the first rehearsal he said: “Now, I count on you to get it right because you know it better than I do”.’ Peter remembered that the work was difficult back in 1954 and remains so. The performance was broadcast live by the BBC and in his notes accompanying Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s premiere recording of the work Christopher Palmer commented that listening to off-air extracts reveals that ‘though the performance was not consistently bad, it was far from consistently good, and did nothing to avert the critical brick bats which were hurled about in the press pretty much in all directions afterwards.’ I wonder if, for a work of this complexity and a performance in such a resonant, challenging acoustic as Worcester Cathedral, the Three Choirs Festival might have been better advised to engage a much more experienced conductor than Howells. Palmer also reminds us that the London premiere, under Malcolm Sargent, actually broke down at one point. Almost certainly, the first satisfactory performance was one given by the Bach Choir under Sir David Willcocks to celebrate Howells’ 90th birthday. Incidentally, the BBC broadcast of that performance has been loaded onto YouTube; the sound isn’t at all bad and it would be a fine tribute to both conductor and composer if the performance could find its way onto CD. The 1994 Rozhdestvensky recording was a further and major step in the work’s rehabilitation. I bought that recording when it was first issued as a single disc – it has since been reissued as a two-disc set coupled with the same conductor’s premiere recording of the Stabat Mater (review). However, I have to confess that despite my love of Howells’ music I’ve not listened to it very often. I’ve found it hard to really get under the surface of the work and perhaps that mirrors my initial difficulties with Hymnus Paradisi, a score which I have come to regard as one of the very greatest choral/orchestral works by an English composer.

The score of Missa Sabrinensis is often enormously complex. In his notes for Hyperion, Jonathan Clinch tells us that ‘careful editing (by Paul Spicer and David Hill) and advances in recording techniques mean that, in a sense, we now have the chance to hear for the first time Howells’ Mass as he had originally intended, with all of the intricate detail.’ The clear inference is that Hill and Spicer have done their editing work specifically for this project; I can find no reference to editing work in the documentation accompanying the earlier Chandos recording.

The work calls for large forces. There’s an SATB solo quartet. The chorus – also SATB – frequently divides, I believe, into multiple parts. The orchestration includes triple woodwind, 4 horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), harp, piano/celeste, organ and strings. The expense of such lavish forces, together with the need for extensive rehearsals probably puts the work beyond the reach of most amateur choral societies.

When I took down the Chandos recording from my shelves I was struck by the disparity in the playing times. Rozhdestvensky takes 76:05 whereas Hill requires 67:12. Lest it be thought that Hill is unduly hasty, the 1982 Willcocks reading, referenced above, has a playing time of approximately 68 minutes. When I compared the two CD versions it was soon apparent that the Russian conductor has something of a penchant for expansive tempi: I’ll give one or two examples during this review. The Chandos recording, engineered by Ben Connellan, still sounds very impressive twenty-six years later. In keeping with Chandos style, the sound is up-front and full-blooded and the soloists are marginally better heard than on the new Hyperion. However, the Hyperion sound, engineered by Deborah Spanton, is not short of impact or detail and many listeners will warm, as I did, to the realistic concert hall distance on the sound picture. While we’re on the subject of comparisons, the BBC Concert Orchestra need not fear comparison with the LSO, who play for Rozhdestvensky. The London Symphony Chorus sings well on the Chandos recording but I think the Bach Choir is even better. David Hill has the preferable solo team.

The orchestra begins the Kyrie in simple, tranquil fashion: is Howells perhaps alluding to the very modest surroundings of the source of the Severn? It’s not long, however, before the music, like the mighty river itself, is in full spate; the vocal lines – both solo and choral – feature ecstatic, melismatic lines. Howells makes his soprano and tenor solo lines particularly prominent – indeed, they are rather more to the fore than their mezzo and baritone colleagues throughout the work. I was impressed with the clear, silvery soprano of Helena Dix and Benjamin Hulett, who sang for Hill on his recording of the Stabat Mater, again distinguishes himself.

The Gloria has many tumultuous passages. The opening pages are jubilant and very fully scored. However, we enter calmer waters at ‘Domine Deus’. In the extensive section that follows, Rozhdestvensky’s approach is appreciably more expansive than Hill’s. In its way, the Russian’s performance is impressive, but I prefer Hill’s way with the music which is tauter yet sacrifices no expression. In the Hill performance, I love the hushed way the solo quartet sing at ‘Quoniam tu solus’; their singing gradually rises in power, paving the way for an explosion of choral and orchestral sound. There’s a complex fugue, initiated by female voices, at ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ and from this point on the music is full of excitement, ardour and teeming textures. The closing ‘Amen’ is truly thrilling.

The Credo is another substantial movement; it opens with a thematic motif that will recur several times. A good deal of the music is full-on but Howells provides some highly effective contrasts through reflective passages. The first of these comes at ‘Qui propter nos homines’ where a tenor solo leads the way. This is a good juncture at which to measure the different styles of our two conductors. Rozhdestvensky’s interpretation of the opening is expansive and majestic: as a result, he reaches the tenor solo at 4:14. Hill is (beneficially) more impulsive, to such a degree that he arrives at the tenor solo at 2:35. Another reflective passage comes at ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’, which is initiated by gentle solos, first from the baritone and followed by the tenor. The episode that follows is intense and beautiful until a huge crescendo occurs at ‘Et in unam sanctam catholicam’, prefacing a tumultuous close to the movement.

The Sanctus opens with what Jonathan Clinch aptly describes as a ‘solemn procession’ played by the orchestra. Here again, we find Rozhdestvensky is more expansive. I think his approach is completely valid, but you can judge the pacing by the fact that on the Chandos disc the voices enter at 2:29; on the Hyperion the entry is at 1:46 and on balance David Hill’s more purposeful gait convinces me more. The ‘Hosanna’ features the full vocal and orchestral forces in an ecstatic outpouring but then Howells springs something of a surprise by winding down to a hushed conclusion. Not only is that very effective in its own right but also it helps to establish the mood for the Benedictus. This stands apart from the rest of Missa Sabrinensis in that the forces are pared right back and the mood is consistently gentle. The solo quartet carries the main burden here – and they do so beautifully for Hill – with a reduced orchestra and a female semi-chorus, here singing radiantly, in support. I love the flute solos at either end of the movement. This setting is an oasis of tranquillity.

The Agnus Dei, which refers back thematically to the Kyrie, begins with a highly chromatic, lyrical orchestral introduction. Much of the choral writing is passionate while the solo parts are full of emotional urgency. Howells builds the movement into an arresting plea for mercy but then the music falls back to a hushed yet intense conclusion.

This is a highly impressive account of Missa Sabrinensis. It’s one that does full justice to the stature of the work. Indeed, now that I’ve had the chance to compare and contrast, I’d say that David Hill reveals the work’s stature more compellingly and convincingly than did Gennady Rozhdestvensky in his pioneering version. That Chandos recording, though it has many merits, is now superseded by this newcomer.

There’s room for an interesting ‘filler’ Many readers will be familiar with the hymn All my hope on God is founded which marries a tune by Howells with words by Robert Bridges (1844-1930) after Joachim Neander (1650-1680). What a magnificent tune Howells composed! He named it after his son, Michael – the tune was written before Michael’s tragically early death. What I didn’t know was that in 1970 Howells was asked to orchestrate it. Unfortunately, he never completed the task but Christopher Palmer revised it to enable the orchestral version to be heard at the Howells centenary concert in 1992 and now David Hill has made a further revision for this recording. The choral forces used for Missa Sabrinensis are significantly reduced. Following a celebratory brass and percussion fanfare, the first two of the four stanzas are sung in unison and unison female voices sing the third verse. A majestic fanfare for brass, organ and percussion precedes the final presentation of the tune, which this time is adorned by a festive soprano descant. It’s an uplifting conclusion to the disc.

Even if you have the Chandos disc you should certainly add this new Hyperion disc to your collection and if you are a Howells admirer but have yet to invest in a recording of Missa Sabrinensis the Hill disc is a clear front runner. David Hill presents a different view of Missa Sabrinensis to that of Gennady Rozhdestvensky and whilst that pioneering version still has a place in any Howells collection, this newcomer offers an even better performance and a more convincing interpretation. David Hill has certainly increased my appreciation of this neglected important score very significantly. As I indicated earlier, the Hyperion sound is very good and Jonathan Clinch’s notes, which include some of Howells’ own thoughts on the work, are invaluable.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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