Howells Requiem; A Sequence for Saint Michael
Will only male choirs do for Howells’s sacred music? So previous commentators have insisted, though only the most rigid epigone would say the same for the cantatas of Bach. By the same token, well-enunciated American English isn’t out of place, especially when the Massachusetts-based Gloriae Dei Cantores sing a work written for Washington National Cathedral – a late and unfinished Te Deum, at that, and like the Dallas canticles more tonally stable than their earlier counterparts written for English cathedrals. Much as I welcome John Buttrey’s completion of this gently persuasive setting, my reservation is more basic and concerns breadth of tone. Parallel semitones (the opening of the Chichester Magnificat), simple psalms (No 23 from the Requiem) and bold unisons (in the Te Deum) don’t make the intended effect and stray perilously away from the note (too often under it, in the case of the sopranos) when the vibrato is wide and the recorded balance diffuse. Unless you’re in the middle of this music, singing it, you can often strain to catch the details, whether heard on record or in church, and the wide dynamic range required can be more help than hindrance.
Hyperion’s disc, then, is all the more impressive for dispelling the clouds of dissonance that have given Howells the bad name of a meandering mystic and letting us hear what a fine ear he had, not just for the juicy suspension or overpowering cadence but for deft two-part harmony, as one finds throughout the understated Gloucester Canticles. The choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, is ideally pure and full in tone. The grand hymns and canticles are extrovert and focused, the intimate supplications such as Take him, earth sung with great poise. Comparisons can flatter to deceive but, by the side of the Trinity choir’s Requiem, the Choir of St John’s sounds too quick, the Vasari Singers too distant, the Cambridge Singers a little plain; even my previous favourite, the Corydon Singers, don’t alight on chords with quite the full and alert appreciation of what makes Howells Howells, that impassioned, modally inflected application to the personal and the numinous which reminds me more of Bruckner than Stanford. How good it is to hear the St Paul’s Service not swallowed up by the dome of that cathedral but still buttressed by a mighty Willis beast, belonging in this case to Lincoln. In a recital of many highlights, I have returned again and again to the St Paul’s Nunc dimittis: spaciously paced and surely directed towards a ritardando of almighty breadth more associated with the ambivalent Catholic Mahler than the equally ambivalent Protestant Howells. This is a perfect disc of its kind.