When I interviewed
Paul Spicer earlier this year he mentioned a forthcoming disc of music by Herbert Howells that he’d recorded with the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. Here it is.
Between 1990 and 1994 Paul Spicer and the Finzi Singers made four excellent CDs for Chandos devoted in whole or in part to the choral music of Howells (Bax/Howells
). I don’t think that those individual discs, all of which I acquired when they first came out, are now available though most, if not all, the pieces by Howells have more recently been grouped together on a generous complication set (Chandos CHAN 241-34
With this new release Paul Spicer revisits quite a number of the pieces that he recorded for Chandos, including the Mass in the Dorian Mode
, which received its first recording from the Finzi Singers in 1991 (CHAN9021
). However, even collectors who have some or all of those Chandos CDs should seriously consider investing in this new disc, partly because Spicer here gives three more pieces their recorded premières and, even more importantly, on account of the excellence of all these performances by the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. I’ve heard their previous discs (review
), all of which have featured high quality singing, and that standard has been maintained here.
The Mass in the Dorian Mode
was written within weeks of Howells commencing his studies at the Royal College of Music in May 1912. His teachers, Stanford and Wood encouraged him to hear the fine choir that flourished at Westminster Cathedral under the leadership of R. R. Terry. It regularly sang Tudor and European Renaissance polyphony during the liturgy and Howells was immediately smitten. The Mass was written for – and performed by – Terry’s choir, as were the five other religious pieces included here that Howells composed between 1913 and 1918. The Mass seems to have languished in obscurity for many decades until Paul Spicer and the Finzi Singers gave it a first recording in 1991. Looking back, I see that John Steane, that fine and discriminating judge of vocal music, had this to say of the work’s long neglect when he reviewed the disc in Gramophone: “If our own century had set higher store by the beauty of the artefact and been less obsessed with the originality of the artist, it would have rejoiced in a work such as this; and if its notion of originality had been a little broader it would have recognised that the composition is as “original” a creative act as any modernist experiment in dissonance.” How true; and how elegantly put.
The Mass, which is a Latin setting, contains much beautiful music. It may well remind listeners of the Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor, a work it pre-dates by some nine years, though it’s not as ambitious a work as RVW’s masterpiece. However, there is surely a link with RVW in that only two years earlier, in 1910, Howells had witnessed the unveiling of the Tallis Fantasia
in Gloucester Cathedral at the Three Choirs Festival and had been bowled over by this homage to Tudor music. For contrast, Howells deploys an SATB quartet from time to time, notably in the Crucifixus
section of the Credo
and in Agnus Dei I
, though not, in this performance, for the Benedictus
despite what the booklet indicates. Howells’ music is often chaste and it’s beautifully imagined for the voices and laid out with great skill – remember, this is the work of a young man of twenty, only just beginning his training at the Royal College. Above all, the music convincingly breathes the air of sixteenth-century Tudor polyphony, though it is no mere pastiche. The Gloria
are particularly fine and I also relish the fact that the brief Osanna
is serene and spacious rather than exuberant. The second Agnus
, for the choir, is absolutely exquisite.
This Birmingham performance is a fine one. The clean, fresh tone of the choir – and Spicer’s skill in balancing it – means that the part-writing is clear at all times. By comparison, the Finzi Singers offer richer, fuller sound and they are often stronger in the way they project the music, notably in the Credo
. The Finzi’s solo quartet projects Agnus Dei I
more strongly than the younger Birmingham quartet but the latter offer a different way with the music which is equally valid and pleasing. The Birmingham student choir as a whole is not put in the shade by comparison with the more mature, professional Finzi Singers. Indeed, I’d argue that in some ways their fresh, young voices take us closer to the liturgical origins of the music. I’m impressed.
The other works written for Westminster Cathedral all come off well here. It’s interesting to note the advance between the Mass and the setting of Salve Regina
, just four years later. This luminous piece contains some sensuous music and there’s a noticeable advance in Howells’ harmonic language. Most of the setting is calm and reflective though at the words Eia ergo, advocata nostra
the music is briefly urgent and ardent. This piece and Regina Caeli
were among a set of four Marian anthems that Howells wrote for Terry’s choir in 1916. The other two are lost: what a shame.
The programme also includes a pair of madrigals written during this period, In Youth is Pleasure
and Before me careless lying
. Incidentally, Paul Spicer gave both these pieces their first recordings on a 1991 Finzi Singers disc of Howells and Bax. As Jonathan Clinch says in his very good notes, these pieces “demonstrate another strand of Howells’ forays in Tudor style.” I’m generally resistant to madrigals – far too many fa-la-las for my taste - but I’m not resistant at all to these two charming pieces and especially not when they’re done as freshly as is here the case. It’s interesting to make a comparison with Spicer’s earlier recording. We find the Finzi Singers sounding more mature and sophisticated – but, then, the line-up for that recording included such names as Robin Blaze, James Oxley, Andrew Carwood and Roderick Williams early in their respective careers. More mature in their style, the Finzi Singers may be but the freshness of the Birmingham singers has its own appeal – and a strong one – in these pieces.
Turning from music that Paul Spicer has already recorded, we find three pieces here that are completely new to the Howells discography. Levavi oculos meos
was composed in 1959 as a wedding anthem for unison sopranos and organ. However, it lay unpublished until 2000 and even then its appearance in print was possible only after “major editorial work” by Paul Spicer. I think the work was very worthwhile. The piece sets a couple of verses from Psalm 121 in both Latin and English. It features some of the composer’s trademark soaring treble/soprano lines and the independent organ part is an interesting one. It’s good to find this work on disc at last.
Also new to disc is When first thine eies unveil
. Remarkably, this was written on Christmas Day, 1925 — and its companion piece, the better-known My eyes for beauty pine
was composed the very next day. It seems that Howells was not unused to working over Christmas: I have read of other pieces that were dated on Christmas Day. When first thine eies unveil
sets words by Henry Vaughan and the piece opens with an extended tenor solo, here plangently sung. Both this solo and, initially, the music for the choir is subdued but gradually the intensity mounts and with it the volume until an astonishing climax for choir and full organ is attained. The climax is marvellously done here, the organ pedals making an imposing sound. After this the piece winds down to a tranquil end. It’s an impressive composition and I’m amazed it’s not been recorded before. Happily, this first recording is an excellent one. The choir makes an equally good job of My eyes for beauty pine
The third newcomer to disc is O Mortal Man
. It is believed that this dates from the early 1940s. This is an arrangement for choir and organ of the Sussex Mummers’ Carol
. It’s not a complex piece: in essence the two verses are sung in unison with organ accompaniment - with a soprano descant at the conclusion of the second verse - and in between the verses there’s a ‘verse’ for unaccompanied wordless choir. It’s fairly simple but it’s most attractive and very English. I’m delighted to have discovered it.
All the music on this disc is very fine. I’m delighted that Paul Spicer has not only given us an opportunity to hear unfamiliar – but very good – Howells, some of it for the first time, but also that he has included some pieces from Howells’ maturity along with the early pieces. The performances are excellent, offering another example of the work of this expert and committed choir. The recording is very good, presenting it attractively in a suitably resonant acoustic. I did notice one oddity, however. When I listened through headphones I could hear frequently a strange low frequency sound which I can only describe as sounding like a bass drum being struck very softly. I have no idea what this could be. It wasn’t overly distracting, though it was noticeable. However, I couldn’t detect it at all when listening through loudspeakers. Don’t let that very minor issue deter you, though. This is a fine Howells recital and another feather in the cap of Paul Spicer and his young Birmingham singers.