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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
String Quartet No. 3 (In Gloucestershire) [28:33]
Lady Audrey’s Suite, Op. 19 (1915) [20:20]
Piano Quartet, Op. 21 (1916, rev. 1936) [26:59]
Dante Quartet, Gould Piano Trio, David Adams (viola)
rec. 2017, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
NAXOS 8.573913 [76:08]

The years 1914-1919 were the most productive of Herbert Howells’ entire career. There were two major external reasons for this productivity: first, an almost conscious desire not to think of all his friends then serving at the front, including Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss, Arthur Benjamin, and others; secondly, the reason Howells did not serve himself - a diagnosis of Grave’s disease, then almost a death sentence, and an influence on all three of the works on this disc, as they were written as part of the composer’s effort to write as much as possible in light of an uncertain future.

Lady Audrey’s Suite, recorded here for the first time, was considered by Howells to be his first string quartet, although not officially numbered as such. It was written in late 1915 for the niece of Howells’ great friend, the musicologist Marion Scott. The four movements portray aspects of the life of a little girl of more than 100 years ago - simpler than today. When writing the Suite Howells was under the influence of Ravel and especially Debussy - hence the golliwogs. But the English golliwogs are far sleepier than their French counterparts and take a while to get moving. Once they do, its straight into Gloucestershire and Vaughan Williams becomes the major influence, as he is in the second movement, The Little Girl and the Old Shepherd; but here, Howells adds a sad element that depicts Audrey’s pity for the Old Shepherd.

The most substantial movement is the third, Prayer-time, in which Audrey reviews the week’s events while saying her prayers. There is a different event for each day and Howells depicts this through very beautiful writing for the strings in variation form. In the last movement, Audrey hears from the Old Shepherd about his more adventurous and fortunate early days. The Suite is a far more substantial work than this description would indicate and shows how developed was Howells’ technique even at this early age.

The Piano Quartet was written soon after Lady Audrey’s Suite. Sent in personally by Stanford to a competition organized by the Carnegie Trust, it was the work that brought Howells his first fame. It is dedicated in a large sense to Gloucestershire and more specifically to Chosen Hill and Ivor Gurney. The Hill was frequented by Howells and Gurney before the Great War and the three movements of the Quartet portray the Hill at different times of the day and under different weather conditions, although the program is not essential to understanding the piece. The opening movement seems to recall the corresponding movement in Lady Audrey’s Suite with its mixture of French Impressionism and RVW, but one quickly realizes that the melodic line and the underlying musical processes are all Howells. The writing for strings is masterly and the combination of exuberance and restrained emotion is typical of the composer. The lento second movement adds a passionate element that reminds us that Howells had to pass Chosen Hill on his way to visit his then fiancée, later wife, Dorothy Dawe. The last movement is the freest of outside influences and demonstrates the composer’s already remarkable ability to synthesize a wide variety of emotions. The writing, though for a small ensemble, prefigures the orchestral works of the 1920’s and also demonstrates great facility with formal procedures. Howells was definitely on his way.

Like the Piano Quartet, the String Quartet No.3 (In Gloucestershire) was started in 1916. However, its development was very different from that of the Piano Quartet. Howells lost the sketches for the quartet on a train (cf. the later Missa Sabrinensis) and forgot all about it. Later, themes from the quartet started returning to him and he began a process of reconstruction that took over a decade and involved revising and re-creating whole sections and even movements of the quartet. In other hands this might have produced a confusing or synthetic-sounding work but with Howells it ended up as one of his most important chamber works. The pastoral elements of the Piano Quartet, with their underlying tragic sense, are still here but handled with greater maturity and technical ability. The result is in some ways reminiscent of the Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony.

The main material of In Gloucestershire is stated early in the first movement, especially one theme that constantly reappears, sometimes sad, sometimes wistful, occasionally despairing. In the second movement this theme alternates with a jaunty march. The slow movement has the widest emotional range in the piece but both the underlying structure and the first movement theme are never far from view. The last movement starts with some brisk material and eventually Howells combines this with another version of the opening movement theme. This is the most profound moment in the piece; the music then picks up speed while continuing the development of both themes before we are finally left with reminiscences of the opening of the whole work.

Howells is very well served by the performers on this disc. I had long thought that the version of the Piano Quartet from the 1970s on Lyrita (review) could not be surpassed but this version by the Gould Piano Trio and David Adams has more fire and benefits from up-to-date recording. Even better is the Dante Quartet in the two string quartets. There is no competition for Lady Audrey’s Suite but the performance of In Gloucestershire really gets to the heart of the piece and features exceptional sound. Overall, an exemplary Howells disc with what will now be the standards for the Piano Quartet and In Gloucestershire.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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