HOWELLS Complete Morning & Evening Canticles, Vol 1
Howells wrote 20 settings of the evening canticles, which, with their brothers of the morning, will occupy five discs in this useful, boldly conceived, enterprise. Despite giving it a warm welcome, however, I can’t help wishing the series had been arranged chronologically.
Paul Andrews’s introduction tells of three periods (1918-41, 1945-57, 1966-75) and so from the start interests us in Howells’s development. This first volume duly opens with the first setting, but it is followed by the Sarum Service of 1966, and the programme continues to jump around so that the opportunity for which the essay prepared us is withdrawn, at least until the whole edition is complete and can be reassembled at will.
We tend to equate artistic development with progress. That initial setting, the freshly vigorous work of the Stanford pupil, sets out on the long life’s musical journey with bone and muscle. The gentler passages have a light-footed grace, and in exultation the spirit flares; this is the music of purposeful movement, where the more ‘Howells’ he becomes the more the firm lines of the Stanford pupil dissolve, and the nearer he draws to a music of mystical stasis. The opening of the Collegium Regale Magnificat has something of this, the great thing being that he can still pull out of it (with the strong-boned ‘He hath shown strength with his arm’, for instance). It would have been good to follow the order of composition, seeing which parts of his musical system he developed and which he left unexercised.
The other slightly hesitant, or faltering, element in this welcome release (for that is still what it is) concerns the choice of a choir of mixed voices. The women scrupulously adhere to the tonal ideal, but boy trebles and male altos have a distinctive quality, and Howells’s own sound is less distinctive without them. It is an extremely good choir, and they are under careful, intelligent direction, yet making a chance comparison with the choir of Bristol Cathedral in the G major setting (8/96) I couldn’t help rejoicing in a character (individual as a face) which those trebles possessed and for which the Collegiate sopranos substitute a collective identity somewhat de-personalised.
The recorded sound is fine, balance between choir and the excellent organist is well judged, and the acoustic resonance is sufficient to form an appropriate setting while preserving the clear articulation. The selection here includes two premiere recordings (the York Service and the 1941 setting for men’s voices, performed, as the score suggests, by women). The most colourful and frequently heard of all, the Collegium Regale, brings this first volume to an exciting close, sharpening an appetite for the second.'