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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)
Requiem [17:55]
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
Texts included
COLLEGIUM RECORDS CSCD524 [45:10 + 48:01]

It’s hard to believe that these recordings hark back nearly thirty years, such is the quality of the sound. It’s been skilfully re-mastered, and the quality of the music-making as well as the freshness of the young voices of the Cambridge Singers sound out effortlessly across the decades.

This double album also has a significant historical dimension; originally issued at a time when Rutter’s reputation was at last extending well beyond his anthems and Christmas carols, it focuses on two composers who are both immensely important predecessors of his. Stanford, who taught Howells at the RCM, had strong Cambridge connections, as of course does Rutter. And a deep spiritual link between Rutter and Howells exists, in that they each lost children at a tragically young age – Howells’s son Michael to polio at age nine, and Rutter’s son Christopher killed in a road accident when he was nineteen. These traumatic events inevitably had a profound impact on each man, which found expression in some of their finest music.

So this is essentially a re-issue, although it is important to note that three of the tracks are here released for the first time. CD1 is devoted to the music of Stanford, and the first item, the Magnificat in G of 1904, makes very explicit the musical debt Rutter owes to him; the scintillating quavers in the organ accompaniment, for example, have inspired a number of Rutter’s lighter pieces, such as the Sans Day and Shepherd’s Pipe carols. The blithe melodic phrases of the soprano, beautifully sung here by Caroline Ashton, are amongst Stanford’s loveliest inspirations – an expression of pure joy, as befits the origin of the words in Mary’s song of thanksgiving when told that she will give birth to the son of God.

The fine singing of baritone Simon Davies in the Nunc Dimittis that follows alerted me to the number of performers in this ’92 recording who have gone on to become distinguished musicians in their own right; not only Davies, but also Ben Parry - choral director, soloist and composer - and Christopher Purves, now a distinguished operatic bass. There are several more, so it’s very pleasing to have the names of the choristers given in the excellent booklet, with notes by Rutter himself.

Two unaccompanied anthems follow - When Mary thro’ the garden went, and I heard a voice from heaven. The latter is especially affecting, with the ethereal soprano of Karen Kerslake, while the song’s alternation between full choir and a small group of voices is captured superbly.

The Latin Magnificat is one of no less than four settings of this text you’ll find on these CDs, though this is the only one set in Latin. The lay-out for double choir (eight parts) and the character of the opening are, as Rutter points out in his notes, strikingly reminiscent of Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn – clearly a quite deliberate nod on Stanford’s part to the great master. This is a late work, and a considerable challenge for a choir, even one as accomplished as this. Needless to say, they rise to it splendidly.

The Magnificat in B flat takes us back to the other end of Stanford’s creative life, having been composed in 1879 when he was in his twenties. This piece was new to me, and filled me with delight and admiration. Strange though it is, Stanford’s output is crammed with jewels like this; dashed off, it seems, to fulfil a liturgical need, but rarely showing less than the greatest skill and imagination. The organ part is notable too, and reminds us of the presence of Wayne Marshall, another performer at the start of a glittering career. The last two tracks are occupied by the reflective anthem O for a closer walk and the Te Deum in C of 1909, which Rutter appositely describes as ‘grand without being grandiose’.

Despite his being a pupil of Stanford’s and having so much in common with him, Herbert Howells’s musical personality is quite distinct from his teacher’s. He is more ‘inward’ than Stanford, or indeed than Rutter, and is deeply in touch with the distant past of English music – Tallis, Byrd and, to an extent, Purcell. One is immediately aware of that when one listens to the first work on CD2, the intensely personal Requiem setting. This is no conventional Requiem (even as I write I ask myself whether such a thing exists!), but rather a set of six motets, two of which have texts from the Requiem, three from the Bible, and one from the Burial Service. It is this last, Salvator Mundi, which begins the work. Its haunting modal quality means listeners can be forgiven for thinking momentarily that they are in the world of the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, an impression that soon passes, though, as the music assumes its own expressive character. The setting of Psalm 23 that follows is a thing of great beauty and simplicity.

Interesting that two of the texts here were set by Rutter himself in his Requiem of 1985, which remains one of his finest works. Of course, his approach to the texts in question, Psalm 23 and I heard a voice from heaven, is entirely different from that of Howells, yet his response to and shaping of this music is deeply sympathetic. He and his singers capture the complex, even unique combination of serenity and pain that is to be found in this moving music. Hymnus Paradisi may be Howells’s masterpiece, but I don’t believe he ever surpassed the quiet intensity of this Requiem.

It’s in the Magnificat of the Gloucester Service that the Ely Cathedral organ gets its most thorough work-out. There is a truly thrilling moment when the men stride out powerfully – He hath shewed strength with his arm – accompanied by some alarming seismic rumblings. Yet in this movement and the Nunc dimittis that follows, Marshall is able to find magical softer tones.

The Fear of the Lord brings great contrasts of excitement and lyricism; again, the organ contributes much in this anthem written by the 83-year-old Howells for Rutter and his Clare College choir (and there is an entertaining little anecdote in the booklet about the premiere!). Like as the hart is one of the best-known of his shorter works, and for good reason; it is an absolute gift from heaven to a good choir, and the singers here simply gorge themselves (in the best possible taste) on the glorious melodic outpourings.

The Christmas anthem Long, Long Ago is done to perfection, sung with such easy flexibility of expression; and the CD finishes by reminding us of Howells the hymnist with All my Hope on God is founded, sturdy yet pleasingly irregular in its phrasing.

What a disc! This is some of the finest choral singing you will ever hear, and everything benefits from the benign, infinitely musical guidance of Rutter himself. In short, a very special experience.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: John Quinn

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