Howells Chamber Music
The follow-up to mobius’s Naxos CD of Bax chamber works (10/00) has been a long time coming but proves well worth the wait.
If perhaps neither as personal nor immediately arresting as its unpublished 1917 predecessor, Herbert Howells’s Third Violin Sonata of 1923 is a substantial achievement nonetheless. It bears a dedication to the legendary Albert Sammons and was inspired by a train journey taken that year through the Canadian Rockies. At the start of the Vivace, assai ritmico finale, you can indeed sense, as annotator Andrew Burn observes, ‘the elated thrill of witnessing the height and majesty of the mountains’. Nor is too fanciful to detect the steady clack of the rails and the locomotive’s grinding power in the piano writing of the scherzo and the first movement’s rolling, march-like secondary material. Philippe Honoré and Sophia Rahman forge a thoughtful, formidably secure alliance, if one lacking thrust in both outer movements; otherwise, there’s little to choose between this newcomer and its lucid Hyperion rival.
Hyperion also provides the strongest competition in two of the remaining four items. The masterly Clarinet Sonata, Howells’s last major chamber work, was completed in 1946. The dedicatee was Frederick Thurston, and the wonderfully idiomatic 1980 recording by his wife and pupil Thea King has certainly stood the test of time. Robert Plane’s poetic account is possibly finer still, with its entrancing poise and liquid tone. Plane shines, too, in the coquettish 1946 miniature A Near-Minuet (possibly conceived as a centrepiece for the Sonata) and sublime Rhapsodic Quintet from 1919, which receives a performance very nearly the equal of Hyperion’s. Alison Nicholls lends sensitive and stylish advocacy to the Prelude of 1915 (written for Kate Wilson, a fellow RCM student, and Howells’s sole composition for the harp).
So, a lovely programme, ably masterminded by producer/engineer Michael Ponder (definition is slightly less sharp in the Quintet, though not worryingly so). All pretty irresistible at the Naxos price, I’d say.