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This is the second Howells disc that Stephen Layton and the Trinity College Choir have made for Hyperion and once again they have ventured out of Cambridge for the sessions. Their very fine disc that included the Requiem was set down variously in the Cathedrals of Lincoln and Ely (review). For this new disc, recorded three years later, they have gone even further afield, to the modern cathedral at Coventry where the presence of the 1962 Harrison and Harrison organ must have been a great lure.
This time their programme centres on the Collegium Regale music that Howells wrote for their rival Cambridge college, King’s. Howells honoured a number of cathedrals and churches with Canticle settings but only for King’s did he compose not just a full set of the Morning and Evening Canticles but also a Holy Communion setting. Recordings of the Collegium Regale ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ are numerous but it’s rare to find the complete music all on one disc. Fittingly, Stephen Cleobury and the King’s College choir made such a recording in the chapel for which the music was written. That was in 1989 and the disc, originally issued by Argo but now part of Decca’s British Music Collection (review), has been a highly valued part of my collection for years. There is, inevitably, quite a degree of overlap between that programme and the new Trinity collection – Kings also include the two Psalm settings – but several pieces appear on only one or other of the discs. In any event you can make a strong case for having both discs – if you need a justification – simply on the grounds that the King’s choir is all-male whereas the Trinity team has girls on the treble line and a number of girls in the alto section too. Frankly, I don’t think anyone should bother trying to justify duplication: both discs are excellent and merit a place in any self-respecting Howells CD collection. So I’m not going to make comparisons between the two.
If I might venture the mildest of criticisms of the Hyperion programme I think it would have been even better if they had opened with the two Morning Canticles and ended the programme with the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’. That would have been more liturgically correct and the recital would have ended on a magisterial note with the doxology from the ‘Nunc’. That said, I can well understand that the setting of the Te Deum – one of the greatest in English liturgical music – was felt to be the ideal way to end the proceedings.
In his excellent notes Paul Andrews makes the important point that by 1941 Howells’ career was rather in the doldrums after all the promise of his early years. But then he received an invitation to act as organist of St John’s College, Cambridge while Robin Orr was away on wartime active service. Howells accepted and stayed happily at St John’s until 1945. It was a decision that changed his life for his exposure once again to the daily rhythm of the services and to the music that was sung in the chapel surely set him on course to become arguably the most significant English liturgical composer of the second half of the twentieth century. His presence in Cambridge certainly prompted the composition of the Collegium Regale music. This came about at the suggestion of Eric Milner-White, the influential cleric who in 1941 had just moved from the post of Dean at King’s College Chapel to the equivalent role at York Minster. The Morning Canticles were composed in 1944, the Evening Canticles followed in 1945 and then in 1956 Howells produced the Communion Service, employing some thematic links with the Canticles in both the Kyrie and Gloria.
Layton and his choir perform all this music superbly. In the Jubilate the highlight for me is the doxology where Owain Park underpins the singing with thrilling organ playing, not least his use of what sounds like a trumpet stop on the Great organ. In the Magnificat I love the gentle radiance with which the Trinity sopranos sing the opening phrases. Layton exploits the many contrasts in the music most skilfully and the expansive doxology, one of the most memorable in all Anglican music, sounds magnificent here. The Nunc dimittis features an appropriately sappy English-sounding tenor (Jamie Roberts) who does very well indeed.
Two of Howells’ psalm chants are heard. They are thought to date from his student days at the RCM. I like very much the expressive way in which Layton’s choir delivers the psalm verses. Incidentally, Trinity sing Psalm 121 unaccompanied whereas King’s use a discreet organ accompaniment. I like both approaches but have a slight preference for the Trinity version.
The Communion service contains much fine music. The setting of the Credo is terrific, with Howells responding eloquently to the different demands of the text as the profession of faith unfolds. I particularly admire the inwardness and mystery he achieves in the middle part of the setting while the organ and choral fanfares that proclaim the Resurrection are very exciting. I like, too, the thoughtful way in which the setting ends. The Sanctus setting is in the form of an arch, beginning quietly then building – most impressively here – to a majestic climax before the music dies away again. The Benedictus, for upper voices only, is exquisitely tender – I think the greater maturity of these female students brings a sound that I find marginally preferable to that produced by trebles. The Gloria is a very fine setting, full of interest and variety and it reaches an imposing conclusion with another very welcome airing for that trumpet stop on the organ.
Two of Howells’ anthems are also included. Behold, O God our defender was composed in 1952 as an Introit for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Paul Andrews describes it as “a quiet, reflective prelude to a great state occasion.” That’s true, but only up to a point, I think, because the piece also has several moments of musical strength. It’s very well done here, as is I love all beauteous things.This setting of lines by Robert Bridges dates from 1977 and it’s one of the composer’s last pieces. The choral writing is rich and highly chromatic; it’s suffused with radiance and ecstasy. I love the loud flash of musical light the first time the choir sings the words “God hath no better praise”.
The programme also includes one of Howells’ Psalm Preludes for organ. This one dates from 1915 and it’s a very fine composition. How splendid it sounds here, whether in the reflective opening and closing pages or in the majestic climax. That climax (at 3:06) is built tremendously well by Owain Park and the Harrison organ really delivers with thrilling reeds and an opulent bass.
All this wonderful music is superbly performed. The college’s two organ scholars, Eleanor Kornas and Owain Park, share the playing duties between them. Park plays the Canticles, the Psalm Prelude and accompanies Psalm 122 while Eleanor Kornas does the rest. Both organists play marvellously; I guess they relished being turned loose on the Coventry organ with all its resources – a full specification is included in the booklet. I’ve long thought that the Trinity College Choir is one of the very finest collegiate choirs in Britain and this disc offers further proof of their excellence. Blend, tuning, diction and discipline are well-nigh faultless and the sheer sound of these young voices gives great pleasure. Stephen Layton is to be congratulated, not just for preparing the choir so very well but also for guiding them through this music with such flair and evident empathy.
The recording was in the hands of David Hinitt and Adrian Peacock; they’ve done an excellent job. Especially pleasing is the fact the organ is thrillingly reported yet the balance with the choir is always very good indeed. The notes and other booklet contents are up to Hyperion’s usual impeccable standards.
Both the music and the performances on this Howells collection will give great pleasure.
Hyperion Records CDA68105