Howells Requiem

The start of a new contract between the choir of St John's and Naxos - and a very encouraging start it is too

Author: 
John Steane

Howells Requiem

  • Requiem
  • Services, 'Collegium Regale', COMMUNION SERVICE
  • Evening Service, 'St Paul's Service'
  • Like as the hart
  • Long, long ago
  • Take him, earth, for cherishing
  • (3) Rhapsodies, No 3
  • (6) Pieces, Paean

Thrice welcome, first, as the inaugural volume of a promising series, then in the choice of a composer who probably more than any other has extended the cathedral repertoire in this century, and thirdly in its engagement of a choir, one of the best, which in recent years has been less prominent in the record lists than it used to be. Under Christopher Robinson, St John's has preserved its distinctive character (the bright tone of its trebles a famous part of it) and, to judge from this record, has gained in vigour and clarity of purpose.
Immediately notable here is the choice of relatively quick speeds. Howells sometimes appears to invite a relaxed style of performance which is not to his advantage. In the Requiem, directions such as 'slowly but with flexible rhythm' and quasi lento are themselves fairly flexible, and timings vary accordingly (St John's, in the first, 1'38'' to the Finzi Singers' 2'40'', and in the second Requiem aeternam St John's 3'07'', Finzi Singers 4'13''). In both, particularly the second, St John's secures the more concentrated attention. Moreover, its tempo suits the acoustic. This applies to a similar comparison with the Choir of King's College in its more reverberant chapel, singing the Communion Service dedicated to it: the more opulent sound matches the broader tempo, St John's achieving (as in the Sanctus) clearer effects within a narrower spectrum. Their discs also have in common the Rhapsody No. 3 for organ, and whereas the expansive performance at King's includes a murmurous pianissimo next-thing-to-silence, the quicker, more sharply defined one at St John's has a more dramatic sense of urgency.
The choice of programme is particularly happy, with one of the lesser-known Evening Services (the 'St Paul's') and one of the best-known of Howells's anthems (Like as the hart). The series should prove to be a timely enrichment of the Naxos catalogue and is off to an excellent start.'

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