HOWELLS Hymnus Paradisi; An English Mass – Handley
An axiom in the aesthetics of eschatology has it that Hell is good value and Paradise rather a liability. Perhaps that puts it crudely. Hell, evidently, is an absolute (we all know how dreadful it would be to exist for ever in a concentration camp), but Heaven is relative (eternal happiness being imaginable only with at the very least the injection of some painful memory to convince us that it isn't bland). First encounters with Hymnus Paradisi tend to call the axiom to mind. It is music awash with ecstasy, and the listener may resist becoming part of this swimmingly coloured dream. Now, further listening proves this is not so: that is, the better you know it, the more you see in it of form, energy and pain.
The pain is real enough, as biographical facts attest. Howells wrote it as a method of escape from ''the crippling numbness of loss,'' as he described the effect upon him of his son's death from polio at the age of ten. The work was so full of the emotion of that time that for many years it had to remain private, and it was only with the approach of the fifteenth anniversary of the death that he showed it to Vaughan Williams and arrangements were made for its inclusion in the Three Choirs Festival of 1950. A work of art should stand on its own, no doubt (and this one does), but, knowing its human cause, one can see more readily the purpose, and hence the form and structure, of its lingering over the single sentence of ''Requiem aeternam''. The abrupt ferocities, a rebellion in the face of cruel fact, can also be recognized as stages in the musical progression, less arbitrary than they perhaps at first appeared.
A strong performance helps, and both of these, the old and the new, have their own strengths. Vernon Handley brings an intensity that shows up when the two are put side by side: there is a feeling for the dramatic quality in the score, the crises and relaxations, without losing sight of the essential lyricism. With Willcocks the sense of sympathy is complete, and no doubt the presence of the composer, with a former pupil of his, Kinloch Anderson, as producer, made the occasion a special one. I see myself going back to both, choosing the Handley for its intensity and clarity of structure and orchestral detail, the Willcocks for the more forward presence of the choir and for the radiant singing of Heather Harper. The soloists on the new recording sing with sensitivity and pleasing tone, but Harper sounds out as the very embodiment of that ''light and warmth of consolation'' which the composer noted as becoming eventually pervasive.
In many ways, the English Mass has a natural kinship here. Written in 1955 for Harold Darke and his St Michael's Singers, it is richly scored (the optional instruments being included) and is probably too expansive for liturgical use. As a symphonic structure, the Anglican placing of the Gloria at the end, instead of following the Creed, is far more satisfying, and the work balances well its elements of prayer and praise. Again the performance carries conviction, though again one could wish for a more forward placing of the choir.
Aptly paired in the Willcocks version is Finzi's Dies natalis, with the composer's son conducting. Though originally performed with a soprano soloist (Elsie Suddaby) and first recorded by Joan Cross, it is better suited to the tenor voice, and Wilfred Brown's well-focused tone, natural production and clear enunciation serve admirably: it is a performance very close to the heart of this work, which with its gentle exultation grows steadily in the affections.'