HERBERT HOWELLS: Requiem; Behold, O God our Defender; A Sequence for St. Michael; Chichester Magnificat and Nunc dimittis; Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing; Te Deum Laudemus – Gloriæ Dei Cantores/ Elizabeth C. Patterson – Gloriæ Dei Cantores multichannel SACD GDCG 053, 68:18 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
HERBERT HOWELLS: Requiem; A Hymn for St. Cecilia; Salve regina; Gloucester Service; Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing; St. Paul Service; All My Hope on God is Founded – Trinity College Choir, Cambridge/ Jeremy Cole, organ/ Stephen Layton – Hyperion CDA67914, 64:09 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Herbert Howells had a tough childhood that conditioned him for the rest of his life. Always worried about money and security, he went to great extremes to ensure that he would always be able to earn his living by composition, even if it meant taking smaller commissions or serving on juries and refusing to ever let go of his teaching position. His view of life, essentially religiously agnostic—surprising because of his enormous number of sacred compositions—was always rather dour and pessimistic, perhaps understandable for a man who lived through two world wars. Yet his art also reflects a very delicate and sensitive absorption of all things beautiful, unique, and reflective. Howell’s music is tender and assertive but never overwhelming, always looking to the bright side but far too often finding the darker.
In 1935, after the death of his son – an event that haunted him for the rest of his life – Howells returned to a Requiem which he had actually started and substantially completed in 1932. It is one of his finest compositions: unaccompanied, poignant, and strenuously suited to the passions of the human voice. Hearing both of these fine recordings provides an interesting contrast. While the Gloriæ Dei Cantores recording is far superior in terms of sound and depth, they also bring an unencumbered and tradition-free approach to the music gives it more passion than is often heard, including on this Hyperion disc. However, the Trinity singers, bound with centuries of tradition and a very expressive and concise training, are much more imperative in their dramatic exclamations, and while the overall tone of their interpretation is softer and not as forceful—certainly a valid take on this music—their greater sense of unity and ensemble perfection works against them, especially when compared to the more flexible and “free bowing” style of the Gloriæ Dei Cantores.
Only one other work is shared by these two discs, the John Kennedy assassination-inspired Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing. We tend to forget how profound the death of this president affected people around the world, and Howells captures the mood perfectly. Both readings here are very well done, and I find it difficult to choose one over the other. Perhaps the Hyperion disc has the most “popular” music, including Howell’s most famous setting of the Anglican evening service, the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, in the St. Paul’s Service, but we do get A Sequence for St. Michael on the Cantores disc, a powerful and provocative work that deserves more performances, and not coincidentally, shares the name of his son as well.
These are two excellent discs that make significant contributions to the Howells discography, and if I prefer the Cantores by just a hair, it’s only because of the unique and flavorful sound they bring to this usually-done-by-the-English music, and the spacious hi-res surround sound. But the Hyperion is nothing to sneeze at, and both will provide enjoyment.
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