Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sir Patrick Spens
David Hill, cond; Claire Rutter (sop);
James Gilchrist (tn);
Roderick Williams (bar);
Bach Ch; Bournemouth SO
NAXOS 8.570352 (65:12)
In notes for this interesting new recording of music by
Herbert Howells (1892–1983), Andrew Burn suggests that Howells’s church music is “arguably the finest by any English composer of the 20th century.” If this idea may seem extravagant to admirers of Stanford, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Walton, and Britten, most would probably agree that Howells deserves a place in this august company. Though he fits squarely into the English choral tradition, little in his difficult and powerful music is predictable—his harmonic palette, voice leading, polyphonic textures, and heterodox text settings all conspire to confound expectations. In this new Naxos release, David Hill conducts a secular work, dating from 1917, paired with what might be considered Howells’s most successful religious work,
, from the mid 1930s. This performance of
joins two excellent recordings already in the catalog: Richard Hickox with the BBC SO and Chorus (Chandos 9744) and Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool SO and Chorus (Hyperion 66488).
On the other hand, this is apparently the first recording of the secular cantata,
Sir Patrick Spens.
Based on a Scottish ballad dating from the Middle Ages, the text relates the story of Sir Patrick, the foremost sea captain of the realm. Despite misgivings, he accedes to the wishes of the Scots King and sets sail for Norway during the stormy season to fetch the princess who will be the king’s bride. Sir Patrick manages to purchase the hand of the princess with half a bushel of gold, but on the return voyage, he encounters a raging storm that sinks his ship and drowns all aboard. Howells set great store by the fact that his setting never repeats a line of the text and indeed the cantata reveals him, in his mid-twenties, already the master of large-scale choral and orchestral writing. In this rousing and polished performance, Roderick Williams’s singing of the heroic part of Sir Patrick is particularly notable.
In 1935, Howells and his wife were stricken by the sudden death of their nine-year-old son from polio. By his own account, Howells could find consolation only by immersing himself in a sort of musical memorial for his son. The result,
sets Latin texts from the requiem with excerpts from the English psalter and burial service in six choral movements with an instrumental prelude. Apparently Howells considered this “mourning labor” a private exercise: only after Gerald Finzi, Vaughan Williams, and Sir Adrian Boult saw the score in the early 1950s was the composer persuaded to have it performed. During the course of 45 minutes, the gravity of the text emerges in great washes of choral sound, superbly set solo passages, and remarkably sensitive orchestral accompaniment, all within a harmonic syntax of great originality and color. By the final line, “Requiem dona eis sempiternam,” these elaborate means have achieved their ultimate end of expiation.
David Hill directs these performances with tremendous skill and understanding, and the opulent sound of the 220-voice Bach Choir is simply irresistible. The sound and presence of the recording are superb, conveying without impediment the composer’s keen ear for rich textures and the handling of huge forces in a large space. Recommended without reservation.
FANFARE: Patrick Rucker
Works on This Recording
Hymnus Paradisi by Herbert Howells
James Gilchrist (Tenor),
Claire Rutter (Soprano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1938; England
Venue: The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK
Length: 45 Minutes 1 Secs.
Notes: The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK (09/16/2006 - 09/17/2006)
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