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Howells - Requiem - Gramophone

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Will only male choirs do for Howells’s sacred music? So previous commentators have insisted, though only the most rigid epigone would say the same for the cantatas of Bach. By the same token, well-enunciated American English isn’t out of place, especially when Massachusetts-based Gloriae Dei Cantores sing a work written for Washington National Cathedral – a late and unfinished Te Deum, at that, and like the Dallas canticles more tonally stable than their earlier counterparts written for English cathedrals. Much as I welcome John Buttrey’s completion of this gently persuasive setting, my reservation is more basic and concerns breadth of tone. Parallel semitones (the opening of the Chichester Magnificat), simple psalms (No 23 from the Requiem) and bold unisons (in the Te Deum) don’t make the intended effect and stray preilously away from the note (too often under it, in the case of the sopranos) when the vibrato is wide and the recorded balance diffuse. Unless you’re in the middle of this music, singing it, you can often strain to catch the detail, whether heard on record or in church, and the wide dynamic range required can be more help than hindrance.

Hyperion’s disc, then, is all the more impressive for dispelling the clouds of dissonance that have given Howells the bad name of a meandering mystic and letting us hear what a fine ear he had, not just for the juicy suspension or overpowering cadence but for deft two-part harmony, as one finds throughout the understated Gloucester Canticles. The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, is ideally pure and full in tone. The grand hymns and canticles are extrovert and focused, the intimate supplications such as Take him, earth sung with great poise.

Comparisons can flatter to deceive but, by the side of the Trinity choir’s Requiem, the Choir of St John’s sounds too quick, the Vasari singers too distant, the Cambridge Singers a little plain; even my previous favourite, the Corydon Singers, don’t alight on chords with quite the full and alert appreciation of what makes Howells Howells, that impassioned, modally inflected application to the personal and the numinous which reminds me more of Bruckner than Stanford. How good it is to hear the St Paul’s Service not swallowed up by the dome of that cathedral but still buttressed by a mighty Willis beast, belonging in this case to Lincoln. In a recital of many highlights, I have returned again and again to the St Paul’s Nunc dimittis: spaciously paced and surely directed towards a ritardando of almighty breadth more associated with the ambivalent Catholic Mahler than the equally ambivalent Protestant Howells. This is a perfect disc of its kind.

Choral Disc of the Month – Five Stars


Gramophone Awards 2012 – Choral Disc of the Year

Even by the exalted standards of previous offerings from Stephen Layton and his gifted Trinity College undergraduates, this is an exceptionally fine release. Its rewarding contents span nearly five decades, from the exquisite anthem Salve regina that the 23-year-old Howells wrote in 1916 for Richard Terry’s Westminster, a sublime treatment of Prudentius’s medieval Latin poem Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti, commissioned for a special service in memory of President Kennedy. Even more affecting is the Requiem of 1932: completed three years before the death of the composer’s son, Michael (who succumbed to polio aged just nine), it contains material to which Howells was to return for his consolatory magnum opus, Hymnus Paradisi. Performances throughout are beyond criticism in their unruffled composure, 
keen sense of poetry and abundant communicative spirit. What’s more, the sound – whether emanating from Lincoln Cathedral or the magical surroundings of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel – is gloriously true. A worthy winner indeed.

Peter Quantrill

Howells - Requiem
Hyperion Records CDA67914