HOWELLS: A Sequence for St. Michael; By the Waters of Babylon & other works – Soloists/St. John's Choir, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha – Chandos

by | May 6, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

HOWELLS: A Sequence for St. Michael; By the Waters of Babylon; A Spotless Rose; Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Gloucester Service); Psalm 142; A Grace for 10 Downing Street; One Thing Have I Desired; Like as the Hart; Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense) Salve Regina; Te Deum (Collegium Regale) – Paul Whelan, baritone/ David Adams, violin/ Alice Neary, cello/ Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/ Andrew Nethsingha, conductor – Chandos 10587, 75:33 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Howells is, for many, an acquired taste. His music is always—or usually—very thick, very harmonically intricate, and sometimes overwhelmingly complex in a very tonal way. The first piece on this well-filled and beautifully executed disc points out his attribute. A Sequence for St. Michael was written for the 450th anniversary in 1961 of the foundation of St. John’s College. However, the real story behind the work is the fact that the composer lost his son Michael, aged 9, in 1935, an event that would haunt him forever and which he never fully recovered. The saint may be in the title but it is the lost boy that comes crying through in every bar in this harrowing and fairly difficult piece. It is not really a pleasant thing to listen to, but it is affecting, an example of how purely modern tonal music can be as disconcerting as the most obtuse atonalism.

On the flip side of the coin we have Howells at his most gracious; Like as a Hart (Psalm 42:1-3) is really the piece that has made him famous, and his exquisite carol A Spotless Rose is also offered, graciously sung. The novelty work on this disc has to be By the Waters of Babylon (baritone, violin, cello, and organ), bittersweet and succinct in its writing, Howells showing us his mastery of orchestration by making this disparate ensemble memorably cohesive.

There are two Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis services, one for his own cathedral at Gloucester and one originally intended for Salisbury Cathedral, but later rededicated to St. Johns, Salisbury having to wait until 1966 to get theirs. The music is declamatory and very well suited to a smaller chapel, the intimacy of the melodic strands signaling very well Howell’s intention of making the music fit the text.

The remaining works, Psalm 142, A Grace for 10 Downing Street, and One Thing Have I Desired are short anthems, the middle one a curiosity as it was commissioned by Prime Minister Edward Heath for a 1972 70th birthday celebration for William Walton.

This is as good an introduction to the choral art of Herbert Howells as you are likely to find, assuming you like choirs with boys, which many do not. But undoubtedly these are the forces for which a lot of Howells’s music was written, and so has a great deal of authenticity. The Choir of St. John’s sings it about as well as one would expect, which is very good indeed, and the acoustics are marvelous.

— Steven Ritter

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