HOWELLS St John's Magnificat
The sound of the boys at St John’s College, Cambridge, has changed considerably since the hard-edged, continental, vibrato-imbued timbre of George Guest’s day (a sound all his own), but the new, clear tone under its present director, Andrew Nethsingha, certainly has an impressive vibrancy and conviction. Not since David Willcocks’s memorable recording of Howells’s church music, made many years ago on Argo, have I heard such precise intonation in the challenging a cappella works as One thing have I desired, the extended A Sequence for St Michael or A Grace for 10 Downing Street (with Psalm 142, one of two premiere recordings).
On this recording (which has several associations with Cambridge, and St John’s), the numinous, indeed mystical ambience of Howells’s lyrical outpourings find an especially apposite voice in the Gloucester and less well known St John’s services (the Nunc dimittis of the latter is sung with notable power and sonority), the ageless A Spotless Rose, the languidly evocative Like as the hart and the Te Deum written for King’s College, the end of which, at least for me, must be among the most affecting pages of church music Howells ever wrote. The Salve regina (1915) deserves to be heard more often, while By the waters of Babylon (1917), compellingly sung here by Paul Whelan, also reminds us of the prodigious fertility of Howells’s early years in the chamber works of the Piano Quartet, the Rhapsodic Quintet and the lyrical violin sonatas as well as, more obviously, the plaintive threnody of the Elegy for string orchestra.