Notes and Editorial Reviews
When Vaughan Williams remarked that Howells was perhaps the reincarnation of one of the great British Tudor composers, Howells felt that his old friend was probably not too far off the mark. The Tudor period had had a huge influence on Howells – he suffered remarkable musical “recognitions” and senses of belonging when he encountered Tudor music and certainly felt a tremendous affinity with the sounds. However, as a composer with a very personal and characteristic voice, he naturally – rather than merely produce pastiche - incorporated Tudor sounds into his works by blending them with more contemporary voices, making them an integral part of his own.
Lambert’s Clavichord and the ensuing Howells’ Clavichord were inspired by
Tudor keyboard dance music (such as the Fitzwilliam Virginal book). Like Elgar’s Enigma Variations of the end of the previous century, the pieces served to commemorate certain friends. In Howells’ Clavichord, Howells occasionally takes a leaf out of Elgar’s book by referring to certain musical characteristics of a few of the friends he represents – in Finzi’s Rest, an emotional tribute to Howells’s friend, composed the day after Finzi died, one can hear echoes of Finzi as the work evokes the haunting beauty, nostalgia and poignancy of Finzi’s writing. Walton’s Toye, similarly, holds subtle hints of Walton’s imperial march music, and I find suggestions of strummed guitar chords in Julian’s Dream, written for the guitar player Julian Bream.
Lambert’s Clavichord was composed in 1927 and was named after not the composer, but Lambert the harpsichord and clavichord maker and photographer, celebrated for his evocative photographic portraits of famous musicians of the day. Lambert lent Howells a clavichord and Howells thanked him by writing the first piece of Lambert’s Clavichord – Lambert’s Fireside, written indeed by Lambert’s hearth in Bath. On Lambert’s death, Howells tried to persuade a number of other composers who had been photographed by Lambert to pay tribute to him through a series of pieces. Although all the composers he approached agreed, none actually got around to doing so, and Howells consequently did the whole lot himself. He commemorated a wide range of friends in the work, ranging from poets such as Walter de la Mare (de la Mare’ Pavane) and the Earl of Sandwich (My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame), musicians (conductors Malcolm Sargent with his Fantastic Sprite and Sir Richard Terry – who had moved Howells with his performances of Tudor church music in Westminster Cathedral - with Sir Richard’s Toye), musicologists (Dr Fellowes, the madrigal expert in Fellowes’s Delight and Sir Hugh Allen, professor of music at Oxford (Sir Hugh’s Galliard), publishers (Foss’ Dump for Hubert Foss of the Oxford Press) and composers – (Hughes’s Ballet for the Irish composer and critic). The blend of Tudor and twentieth-century English sound is seamless, occasionally resulting in a Warlockian air not worlds apart from the latter’s Capriol suite (De la Mare’s Pavane and Sir Hugh’s Galliard, for example), while others appear purely, unmistakably, and delightfully, Howells (Fellowes’s Delight and H H His Fancy).
Despite the dangers of writing for an outdated instrument, the work was well received by all and much appreciated by those pictured within. Howells’ Clavichord falls into two parts, separate by twenty years, with part I composed in 1941 and part II in 1961. This work concentrates on musicians only – both performers and composers, although it commences with a tribute to the keyboard maker Thomas Goff, who had taken over Lambert’s work on his death, and, just as with Lambert’s, Goff’s Fireside had been written at his fireside in Chelsea. Howells’ Clavichord is a little less restrained than Lambert’s (Howells himself said “I have dared to (as it were) raise my voice and kick my heels”). Hence we have a great range of pieces from the beautifully simple (and quintessentially Howells-ian) Goff’s Fireside to more complex dances, such as Boult’s Brangill (for Sir Adrian Boult); from the emotional (Finzi’s Rest and Ralph’s Pavane and more lively Galliard – both for Vaughan Williams, who was reportedly overwhelmed by them) and the dreamy, mysterious yet stirring - Malcolm’s Vision (for George Malcolm, keyboard player and one of Terry’s successors at Westminster Cathedral and Rubbra’s Soliloquy) to the high spirited and light-hearted (the appropriately named Jacob’s Brawl (after the composer Gordon Jacob), Berkeley’s Hunt (Lennox Berkeley), Bliss’ Ballet (Sir Arthur Bliss), Jacques Mask (Reginald Jacques was the founder of the Jacques Orchestra) and Walton’s Toye).
This is the first complete recording of Lambert’s and Howells’ Clavichord on the piano, with John McCabe, a well-known pianist, composer and champion of British music giving an expressive and sensitive performance. A medium-sized grand piano has been used, and pedalling kept to a minimum to ensure a recording that is not too resonant and thus closer to the spirit of the sound Howells intended. I was extremely impressed at how well it actually worked on the piano. It is, as one would expect from McCabe, beautifully played, and he captures the nuances of each piece brilliantly - listen to, for example, the intensity of Rubbra’s Soliloquy or Ralph’s Pavane, the beautiful serenity of Wortham’s Ground and the atmospheric wistfulness of H H His Fancy.
The nearest recorded version to a clavichord that I can find is John Paul’s version on the lautenwerck (a gut-stringed “lute-harpsichord”). This gives a totally different sound and very different feel to the whole piece – closer to the clavichord, yet still not quite there. (One wonders why bother to record on an instrument similar to a clavichord yet not on an actual clavichord?) The sound is “twangier”, coarser and brasher, as on a clavichord, and this works brilliantly well for the dances and the more folk-y works (Sargent’s Fantastic Sprite, for example, where the lautenwerck is able to show off its versatility). The lautenwerck is extremely atmospheric in My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame, yet the piano is even more romantic and dreamy still. Sir Richard’s Toye, Jacob’s Brawl, and Berkeley’s Hunt are incredibly brash on the lautenwerck – percussive and shockingly, almost unpleasantly, dissonant, whereas the same notes on the piano sound more natural and acceptable. Yet this dissonant and startling sound must be what Howells intended – thus the piano is distorting it into something far less hard on the ear. Although most of the works come across as more elegant, gentle, rarefied and refined on piano, the piano’s larger range of colours means that the jazzier bits, as in Boult’s Brangill, and the Warlockian chords as in Patrick’s Siciliano come across fantastically.
So, the piano has a nicer sound and more colour overall, but is perhaps too far from what Howells intended? Unusually, this time I am not coming down on the side of the purists. I do feel these works should be performed on a clavichord, and that the more complex piano is not quite right. Yet at the same time, whilst losing the traditional guitar-y “twang” of clavichord, we gain, on the other hand, an arguably more beautiful sound, that is capable of bringing out the lyrical intensity of some the pieces in a way in which the clavichord cannot. Both, I think, have their place – and whilst a clavichord would be academically preferable, this highly commendable version from McCabe on the piano is one that I value highly.
-- Em Marshall, MusicWeb International
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