Its length – nearly 50 minutes – and size of performing forces–tenor soloist, choir, and orchestra–certainly qualify Herbert Howells’ Stabat Mater as a significant work. And indeed the seven-movement piece, which took more than five years to complete, remains one of his most substantial. However, most likely due to its relentless, unyielding, profoundly emotional atmosphere–ranging from dark and somber to dark and tumultuous–it is not one of Howells’ more popular works (such as the Requiem; the motet Take him, earth, for cherishing; and, perhaps most beloved of all, the “carol-anthem” A spotless rose). Yet, if you want to know Howells you really need to hear this work, which is one of a continuous line of deeply personal expressions of – or perhaps, confrontations with – grief over the death of his 9-year-old son in 1935 (the earliest of these being the Hymnus paradisi).
You can certainly appreciate the representation of grief–embodied in a text with lines like "Holy Mother, grant me that I fix the wounds of the crucified firmly to my heart; Of your wounded son who deigned to suffer for me let me share the pain…” And Howells holds nothing back, harmonically, orchestrally, and even in the, let’s call it “heroic,” writing for tenor solo, which Benjamin Hulett delivers with courage, confidence, and a strong if not effortless tone at the high end. The Bach Choir (the choir that premiered the piece with David Willcocks in 1965) also is very impressive in this demanding and often technically difficult music.
The Te Deum, written in 1944 (this version with orchestra was completed in 1977) is understandably more “English cathedral traditional”, at least where the choral parts are concerned; the orchestral accompaniment – very well played here – seems an unnecessary expansion of the original, overly weighty and unagreeably busy, drawing attention away from the choral expression of the text. Sine nomine, from 1922, is scored for large orchestra, with relatively small but important contributions from two wordless vocal soloists and, at the end, a wordless eight-part chorus.
Hulett’s lovely, clear-voiced tenor works well against the swirling underlay of the orchestra, as does Alison Hill’s equally pleasing and very accurately-tuned soprano. The sound throughout gives plenty of room to the orchestra, yet we hear detail of inner parts – and usually the choir and soloists are appropriately balanced (only occasionally are they overrun by the sheer force of the full orchestra). As mentioned, this may not be the most popular or even the best of Howells’ work; but these three distinctly different pieces – in uniformly fine performances – reveal aspects of his writing and of his very personal motivation for writing that are required listening for anyone who seriously wants to appreciate–or even try to understand–this interesting and influential 20th century composer.
– David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com