HERBERT HOWELLS: The Winchester Service and Other Late Works – Westchester Cath. Choir – Hyperion

by | Oct 23, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

HERBERT HOWELLS: The Winchester Service and Other Late Works = Jubilate Deo for the Chapel Royal; Thee Will I Love; The Winchester Service; Rhapsody No. 4 for solo organ; Come, My Soul; Te Deum for St. Mary Radcliffe, Bristol; Coventry Antiphon; A Flourish for Bidding for solo organ; Antiphon; The Fear of the Lord; Exultate Deo – Simon Bell, organ/ Westchester Cathedral Choir/ Andrew Lumsden – Hyperion CDA67853 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 68:30 ****:
Today, the name of Herbert Howells is associated almost exclusively with choral works, and more specifically with church music in the Anglican tradition. But in the 1920s and 30s he was a rising star among English composers, expected to add luster to symphonic and chamber music of the British Isles. What happened? Paul Andrews, in his notes to this recording, indulges in a bit of psychoanalysis to explain why Howells never fulfilled his early promise and why he gravitated instead to choral music. Prominent among the reasons, according to Andrews, was the bankruptcy of Howells’s father as well as Howells’s near-fatal bout with Graves’ disease, which spurred the composer’s workaholic ways, making him reluctant to give up his teaching position at the Royal College of Music “or decline requests to examine or adjudicate. All this activity paid the bills but it left him precious little time for composition.”
There were other factors as well: Howells’s sensitivity to criticism (he was so devastated after the poor reception of his Second Piano Concerto that he stopped composing for a number of years) and his “disinclination to promote his own music.” Then, too, the death of Howells’s son Michael in 1935 was something he never got over and which he felt compelled to commemorate in choral music settings, of which Hymnus Paradisi is the most famous.
During World War II, Howells served as organist of St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he eventually began to address the need for settings of the liturgy for use in the chapel. For St. John’s he wrote celebrated settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, and this was followed by projects for other institutions, including King’s College (Collegium Regale) and the Cathedrals of Gloucester and Hereford. Other important works from this period include the Four Anthems In Time of War.
While Howells continued to compose for three more decades, most of the music he wrote during the 60s and 70s is little known—hence the present collection of late works. Listening to these pieces, I have to agree that Paul Andrews has a point when he says the difficulty of these works has kept them out of the repertory of most choirs. So Westminster Cathedral Choir can be commended for devoting the effort needed to get this music under their belts, including the service written for the choir’s own use in 1967. The ethereal Magnificat from the Westminster Service is one of the more memorable pieces on the program, but the celebratory Jubilate Deo and Exultate Deo that frame the program also make a lasting impression, as does the latest work, the Antiphon of 1976, which shows Howells stretching his harmonic language even further. The dissonant harmonies here really make the choir work, especially since the piece is a capella—no organ strains to help tune the voice parts.
Speaking of the organ, the solos for that instrument display the same advanced, dissonant harmonic language and are clearly the work of a composer who knows his way around the organ loft. They should show up more often at organ recitals. Simon Bell, assistant director of music at the cathedral, plays with technical adroitness here and throughout the program.
Music Director Andrew Lumsden runs a tight ship, his forces navigating the treacherous waters of Howells’s choral writing with courage and skill. This is a useful addendum to the recordings of more familiar (and not so familiar) works by Herbert Howells on Hyperion. As usual with this label, the spaciousness of the cathedral setting is captured with fidelity and without cloaking the performance in a resonant fog. Good job!
—Lee Passarella

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