HOWELLS An English Mass. Cello Concerto
Commissioned for the 1977 Leith Hill Festival, Howells’s orchestration of the towering Te Deum that he wrote in 1944 for the Chapel Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, launches this handsome anthology in swaggering fashion, with Stephen Cleobury (who retires this coming September after 37 years as Head of Music at King’s) eliciting some fabulously opulent sounds from his combined forces. Both it and John Rutter’s no less effective orchestration (here given its premiere recording) of the sublime Collegium Regale Magnificat frame a much darker offering, namely An English Mass, which followed hard on the heels of the huge Missa Sabrinensis (1954), and which Howells wrote for Harold Darke and his St Michael’s Singers to mark his 40th anniversary as organist of St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, London. The Credo (conducted by Ben Parry) in particular runs the gamut of emotions, the ambiguous mood overall reflecting Howells’s own lifelong grapplings with insecurity, while at the same time tapping into his inimitable, intensely human vein of spirituality.
Disc 2 brings an exciting find in the shape of the Cello Concerto that Howells worked on alongside the large-scale Hymnus Paradisi following the sudden death from polio of his nine-year-old son, Michael, in September 1935 – although in fact the origins of both its absorbing opening Fantasia (which he discreetly submitted for his Oxford DMus) and piercingly poignant central Threnody (orchestrated from the short score by Christopher Palmer and first heard in November 1992 at a centenary concert in Westminster Abbey) preceded that traumatic loss. Jonathan Clinch’s compelling elaboration of the Allegro vigoroso finale (conceived from the composer’s sketches, some 34 pages in all) acts as a satisfying foil to its more consolatory companion movements to reveal a work of strong personality, keen ambition and considerable expressive scope thoroughly deserving of widespread circulation. It’s superbly championed by Guy Johnston, who in turn receives sterling support from the Britten Sinfonia under Christopher Seaman.
Rounding off proceedings are sympathetic readings from Cleobury of three of Howells’s finest works for solo organ. While there’s no denying that the euphoric Paean (1940) and meaty Rhapsody No 3 (1918) make their mark (the latter composed in a single night during a Zeppelin raid on York), it’s the subtly resourceful Master Tallis’s Testament from 1939 that leaves the most enduring impression – one is not surprised to learn that it was one of Howells’s own personal favourites.
Impeccably judged sound and balance throughout; authoritative annotations, too, from Paul Spicer and Jonathan Clinch. All told, a hugely rewarding issue, and absolutely not be missed.