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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]

This is a big work. Not only in terms of its length or the forces involved, both of which are unequalled in Howells’ output. Not only because its complexity kept it unplayed for almost 25 years after the first few performances. Rather, it is because, while not as overtly autobiographical as some of his other works, it contains elements both musical and personal that make it unique in the composer’s output.

The title Missa Sabrinensis translates literally as Mass of the Severn, or more loosely Severn River or Vale. The Severn Vale is where Howells grew up, made his first musical discoveries and friends, and was the inspiration for a number of his works. It is also where his son Michael is buried (at Twigworth), after dying suddenly at the age of 9, the inspiration for Hymnus Paradisi. But even more importantly, the area of the Severn is where Howells first developed his personal type of spirituality, which stamped his music for the rest of his life. Nb. The hymn-tune Michael was written long before Michael’s death. It is heard on this disc, in a stunning performance, in the orchestral version started by Howells and finished by Christopher Palmer and revised by David Hill.

A mixture of anguish and ecstasy is to be expected in the other two parts of what Christopher Palmer (in his 1992 book about Howells) calls the composer’s choral “Trinity”, Hymnus Paradisi and the Stabat Mater. The first, as said, is a memorial to Howells’ son Michael and in the second, as Palmer points out, the mixture is inherent in the text. But the text of the Mass would seem less specific in emotion and yet the Missa Sabrinensis contains that same mixture in at least as potent a form. This is carried by multiple layers of counterpoint from both soloist and chorus, and the orchestra. The work’s contrapuntal density and the sheer difficulty of the choral writing have mitigated against frequent performance. In addition, as David Hill points out in the disc’s notes, the Missa Sabrinensis is not a liturgical work but more of a choral symphony, in which Howells’ musical argument is carried out through the text of the Mass.

The Missa Sabrinensis is too complex to describe here, but I will mention a few details. The pastoral opening is very beautiful and also reminds us that Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire like Howells. Another feature of the entire Kyrie section is the use of the orchestra, both as part of the contrapuntal mass and to carry thematic development. Special mention must be made of the composer’s use of the woodwinds here.

Howells greatly admired Ravel, as is evident in the Adoramus te section of the Gloria (Poulenc may be here too) but the Howells anguish and austerity quickly return. A wonderful moment is the broadening out, both musically and emotionally, as the soloists are added to the chorus in the Qui dexteram. The central Credo deserves a dissertation on its own, but I will again point out the composer’s manipulation of both contrapuntal and thematic material simultaneously. Skipping over, regretfully, the Sanctus, we have the Benedictus with its wonderful music for the soloists, leading to the spare but "emotionally rich Osanna, whose music is elaborated in the second statement of the Benedictus. As Howells pointed out (Palmer) the Agnus Dei “recalls and re-enacts much of the Kyrie”, ending with a final serene statement of the words Dona nobis pacem.

With its complexity combined with the punishing demands on the singers, the Missa Sabrinensis will never be heard as frequently as Hymnus Paradisi, and on CD, it has only been recorded once before, by Gennady Rozhdestvensky in 1995 [see link]. This was a worthy effort and must have introduced many to this great work. However, as Howells scholar Jonathan Clinch points out in the notes to this disc, recording capabilities have certainly advanced in the last twenty-five years, while the score itself has been carefully edited for this version by Paul Spicer and David Hill so as to bring out a great amount of detail that had never been heard up to now.

All of the above would make any new version of the Missa Sabrinensis welcome, even a pedestrian one, but that is far from the case here - this is a superlative disc in every regard. The recording quality is such that one can hear almost every word of the text and the orchestral parts are exceptionally clear. Of course, the chorus is central and the Bach Choir meets the many challenges of the work head-on, showing the same ability and understanding evident in their recordings of Hymnus Paradisi and the Stabat Mater. The four soloists are uniformly excellent, both individually and as parts of the overall texture. David Hill has long been an advocate for Howells and he provides here a fitting completion for his recordings of the Howells “Trinity”. Hopefully he and the Bach Choir will also record the equally worthy An English Mass, the fourth member of the “Trinity”.

William Kreindler

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ John Quinn ~ William Hedley

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