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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Concerto for string orchestra (1938) [31.35]
Elegy, Op.15 (1917) [10.38]*
Suite (1942) [20.40]
Serenade from Suite, Op.16 (1917) [4.23]
Matthew Souter (viola)*
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. St Jude’s Church, London, 19-20 October 1992
CHANDOS CHAN 10780X [67.45]

This disc makes a valuable pendant to the two CDs of Howells’s music for full orchestra also recorded by Hickox for Chandos. Those two discs (now available as a double CD set), including a considerable number of works which required editing before performance, exhausted the total range of Howells’s music in that field (excluding the concertos) and this disc similarly explores the whole of his music for string orchestra. Indeed, of the four works on this disc, two - the Suite and Serenade - are available nowhere else.
The Concerto is not totally unfamiliar, having been recorded by both Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley, but this recording - rather more reverberant than its rivals - is fully their equal. The work was first performed in 1938, but then fell into total neglect until it was revived by the octogenarian Boult in 1974. It little deserves such oblivion, a heartfelt lament surrounded by two more vigorous movements betraying the influence of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. In the second movement Hickox takes the music considerably slower than his predecessors, adding over two minutes to Boult’s timing and nearly three minutes to Handley’s; the tempo marking is admittedly only Quasi lento, but Hickox recognises the qualifying epithet teneramente and the music can well take this more expansive treatment. The opening viola solo is beautifully played by no less a player than Stephen Tees.
In the Elegy the solo viola part is taken by Matthew Souter, who takes a even dreamier approach to the music - where again Hickox takes nearly two minutes longer than Boult’s brisker timing. Boult’s recording, available as part of a Lyrita collection including music by Butterworth, Hadley and Warlock, is less atmospheric than that given to Hickox here; and there are advantages to having the work in the context of a complete collection of Howells compositions. It is tempting to regard this work, written in memory of a friend killed in the First World War, as having a similar flavour to the Hymnus Paradisi and Requiem written as a memorial to Howells’s son; but the music sounds more like the Vaughan Williams of Flos campi, and it is important to remember that the Elegy was written some years before that emotional masterpiece. The Elegy is a major work, and it is not by chance that of all of Howells’ orchestral works it has been the most often recorded.
Following the performance of the Concerto in 1938 Howells attempted to write two further works for string orchestra. One, a St Paul’s Suite intended (like Holst’s work of the same title) for school pupils, remained unfinished; but the 1943 Suite included on this disc was clearly intended for professional players. It has to be noted however that the first movement is very much Howells on what sounds suspiciously like autopilot - he acknowledged the model of Holst - a jolly dance-like piece with some neo-classical spicings which do little to conceal a lack of Holst’s thematicall memorable invention. The second movement Siciliano elegiaco is something rather different, another one of Howells’s meditations on the theme of mortality - although here one for the first time feels the need for a large body of strings to encompass the wrenching chromatic phrases than constitute the emotional climax of the movement. Similarly in the following minuet one notices a lack of string body which may simply be the result of unfamiliarity with the work. The final two movements of this Suite are very lightweight, Howells’s reference in his own programme to “a prevailing plainness of speech” a little too evident alongside the echoes of Holst and Warlock.
The Suite of 1917 originally consisted of three movements, two of which were later reworked as the Elegy and the first movement of the Concerto. The remaining Serenade is an engaging piece of light music. This recording constituted its first performance for more than seventy years, and remains unique. It makes a delightfully offbeat encore to the more substantial works in the collection.
The booklet notes, as one would expect from such an informative guide as Christopher Palmer, are superlative and quote extensively from Howells’s own programme notes. We tend to think of Howells nowadays purely in terms of his songs and choral music. His orchestral writings tended to be sidelined even by the composer himself; but he has an original voice, and for all the influences of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in these string works the Howells fingerprints are always in evidence. The recorded sound is excellent throughout.
Paul Corfield Godfrey