Howells Hymnus Paradisi; Concerto for Strings

A head-on clash between Sir DavidWillcocks’s classic 1970 recording and abrand-new one from Richard Hickox -both have compelling reasons why youshould buy them, not least for their couplings

Author: 
John Steane

Howells Hymnus Paradisi; Concerto for Strings

  • Hymnus Paradisi
  • Concerto for Strings
  • Hymnus Paradisi
  • (A) Kent Yeoman's Wooing Song

Both versions of the Hymnus Paradisi are fine, so it may be that the coupling will decide the question of which to choose: A Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song is claimed as a premiere recording, while the Concerto for Strings has two earlier versions on the Gramophone Database. That impresses me as the finer work, but the Yeoman’s Song is attractive too, and both have a vigour of mood and movement that is right for the listener who wants, as it were, bringing back to earth after the ecstatic spirituality of the Hymnus. Nobody with a real love of Howells will wish to be without either of these extra pieces. The Concerto, first performed in 1938, was written around the central slow movement, an elegy composed four years earlier after the death of Elgar, who was a personal friend. The outer movements are marked Allegro assai vivace and Allegro vivo (ritmico e giocoso) , but their vitality is expressed not so much through speed and jollity as by the vigorous musical mind that instinctively works through counterpoint (I wondered, incidentally, whether it influenced Tippett’s Concerto for double string orchestra written in 1938 and 1939). The Yeoman’s Song, which was first performed, in orchestral form, in 1953, originated (with piano accompaniment) as a wedding present for Sir Keith Falkner in 1930: very much of the English pastoral school, it would no doubt have been derided as such in its own time, whereas a later audience, less bothered about trends in the 1930s, can accept it more readily for the delightful thing it is.
So, both couplings being desirable, choice has not been greatly simplified after all. In the Hymnus Paradisi, the new recording has sharper definition, Willcocks from 1970 having a ‘fatter’ sound. In two movements (Nos. 4 and 5) Willcocks is significantly faster and I think the performance gains. More important, he conducts a more impassioned account: the crescendos have more intensity and even the tranquillo has an emotional concentration, less evident in the Hickox recording, fine as that is. Decisive in my mind is the radiant singing of Heather Harper. Joan Rodgers, with Hickox, is a lovely singer, and long admired, but the quick vibrato on high notes does not suit here. Harper is ideal; the part might have been written for her. Rolfe-Johnson sings sensitively, as does Robert Tear but with voice in fresher bloom. The choral work is excellent in both - and for any listener with a love for this eminently lovable composer, the rash expenditure on both discs would be amply rewarded. The Yeoman is well represented by Alan Opie, and the Concerto has an authoritative performance under Boult, who conducted the premiere. May I add a further pound or two to the bill by urging the purchase (if not already made) of a vocal score of the Hymnus: it’s tempting to hear it as a kind of wash, and following the score makes such a difference to the appreciation of Howells’s clarity of musical purpose.'

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