Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Choral Music - Volume One
A Sequence for St. Michael [10:01]
De La Mare’s Pavane [4:15]
A Hymn for St. Cecilia [3:14]
Walton’s Toye [2:42]
House of Mind [8:30]
Magnificat (New College Service) [6:21]
Nunc Dimittis (New College Service) [3:12]
St Louis come to Clifton [5:11]
O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem [7:15]
Jacob’s Brawl [2:24]
King of Glory [8:56]
The Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
David Burchell (organ)
rec. Chapel of New College, Oxford, England, no date supplied.
CRD 3454 [67:29]
 
Choral Music - Volume Two
Behold O God our Defender [3:45]
Psalm Prelude Set 1 No. 1 [7:01]
Missa Aedis Christe [19:14]
Preludio ‘Sine Nomine’ [5:10]
Sing Lullaby [3:29]
Here is the little door [3:43]
A Spotless Rose [3:12]
Paean [5:51]
Where wast thou? [13:20]
The Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
David Burchell (organ)
rec. Chapel of New College, Oxford, England, no date supplied.
CRD 3455 [66:30]

Born in Lydney in Gloucestershire Herbert Howells was one of the greats of the English choral tradition, a tradition he embraced wholeheartedly with some of the finest pieces of the twentieth century. Howells had a way of composing pieces that fitted the time and the place for which they were composed. This was partly due to his habit of going to a place that had commissioned a work and listening to the acoustic of the building during services. This could lead to embarrassing situations. He once turned up to a church in America straight from the airport in his shabby coat. As he walked around the building listening to the singers he was mistaken for a vagrant and asked to leave. What is true of his music is that if you are able to hear it in the venue for which it was composed it sounds different to anywhere else. This is clear in the New College Morning and Evening Canticles when comparing The Collegiate Singers' performance of the Mag and Nunc recorded in Marlborough College Chapel for Priory (PRCD 745) with that recorded here. True the use of women instead of boys will play its part but it sounds totally different.

Howells’ life was blighted with tragedy when in 1935 his son Michael contracted poliomyelitis whilst on holiday and died three days later. This was an event that would affect the composer and his work for the rest of his life, with many commentators seeing A Sequence for St. Michael, which was not composed until 1961 and which opens volume one, as the composer's true outpouring of grief over the loss of his son. The anguished calls of ‘Michael’ heard at the beginning of the piece certainly make a strong claim for this. This is further emphasised in this recording when compared with that of The Finzi Singers on Chandos (CHAN 9019) with the boys of New College adding the fragility of youth.

Volume Two is blessed by a wonderful recording of the Three Carol-Anthems, with the boys making an excellent alternative to the usual women (CHAN 9458). However it is the inclusion of the Missa Aedis Christe of 1958, which is the stand-out here. Although written for the bigger more troublesome acoustic of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford it sounds magnificent here. The collection concludes with a beautiful rendition of the large-scale motet Where wast thou? from 1948. This could be seen as an ideal bookend to the two discs.

Of the organ music performed on these discs, volume one contains the most interesting and rarer pieces. We get three transcriptions from the clavichord works, the first, De La Mare’s Pavane, by Howells himself, whilst Walton’s Toye and Jacob’s Brawl were transcribed by the great Howells scholar Christopher Palmer, who also wrote the excellent booklet notes. They are played here, as with the rest of the organ pieces, by the organ scholar, David Burchell. His performances are strong and well paced, with there being little to choose between these performances and the other versions of the works that I have.

The Choir of New College are in excellent form. I was lucky to spend a couple of years in Oxford at the end of the 1980s and whilst there I spent as much time listening to choral music as I could. I soon came to the conclusion that this was the best collegiate choir in Oxford if not the country. I even heard them perform many of the items sung here, so these discs bring back many a good memory.

It is to be hoped that now that CRD have come under the auspices of the Wyastone Estate that they have access to the label's back-catalogue of English music. I can remember having an LP (CRD 1097) of William Wordsworth’s string quartets. I can’t remember this ever coming on to CD which is a real shame as it contained some lovely music.

Stuart Sillitoe

These two discs offer the listener a wonderful Howells collection performed by the best collegiate choir in the country. A must for all lovers of the great English choral tradition.

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