Howells is so good he's on a t-shirt
When I first started to get into English music I fed on a steady diet of Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bax (yes, I know he’s Anglo-Irish). After attending the New York premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice I was turned onto Britten. Eventually I came around to Walton, but that was pretty much it for a while.
Eventually I found myself working for an English music publisher so I discovered Lennox Berkeley, Kenneth Leighton, William Mathias and others. Attending weekly high church Anglican services each Sunday introduced me to a world of choral composers I never knew. Many of them are 20th century composers, so while I still worship at the alters of Vaughan Williams and Britten, I spend much time with Edmund Rubbra, Herbert Howells and living composers like Jonathan Dove, Jonathan Harvey and Gabriel Jackson.
While it’s all but impossible to hear an American orchestra program an English work that’s not by Elgar, record labels have taken up the slack. Hyperion and Signum are strongly committed to English choral music and Chandos and Naxos are doing their share for chamber music and orchestral works.
Howells: St John’s Magnificat
For some unfortunate reason Herbert Howells is a composer who is little-known outside the world of choir and organ aficionados. Think about it, when was the last time you heard a Howells work in concert? How sad. Howells was a remarkable composer who had superior melodic chops, an original harmonic palette and a knack for piercing the heart with passionate, deeply felt music. He is one of the giants of the Anglican choral tradition and I revere him. This new recording by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge is a sure thing for choral fans and is the first release in a new series of recordings by the choir for Chandos.
Howells has been treated pretty well on recent recordings. There’s a very good recording of his sublime Requiem and other works sung by the St. John’s Choir that was released by Naxos in 1999— fortunately not much of the repertoire is duplicated on the Chandos disc and this new disc actually has two world premieres: A Grace for 10 Downing Street and chant for Psalm 147. If you want more Howells I also recommend recordings by The Choir of Wells Cathedral on Hyperion and The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on Signum.
This is a terrific program with many highlights. A Sequence for St. Michael is a dramatic motet with striking choral writing and an extended solo for tenor. By the Waters of Babylon is a little-known masterpiece, something akin to a choral tone poem. Here’s the English pastoral tradition in full glory with a highly expressive solo part for baritone and rhapsodic violin, cello and organ accompaniment. The premieres are quite strong too.
There are also some chestnuts. While it’s one of my all-time favorite English carols, perhaps not every Howells collection needs A Spotless Rose? Aficionados will also be familiar with Like As A Hart and the Te Deum he wrote for King’s College. The two sets of evening canticles are pretty well-known and are beautifully performed. The Gloucester Service was composed in honor of Howells’ “own” Cathedral at Gloucester, while the Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense was originally intended for Salisbury Cathedral (the story of how it ended up at St. John’s is the result of a mix-up in a newspaper article about Howells – read the excellent liner notes for details). These are superb settings and are magnificently sung.
As you would expect the choir sings magnificently. This music is in their blood and Andrew Nethsingha (their new Director of Music) leads gorgeous performances filled with clarity and power. This is an indispensable recording for any lover of choral music and a wonderful introduction to Howells for those who haven’t yet made the great man’s acquaintance.
Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Arthur Bliss
I’ve never been able to warm up to the music of Arthur Bliss. I can’t say that there’s anything in his music that puts me off, but there is also nothing in it that moves me as much as the other composers I’ve mentioned But I relish the English music series on Naxos and figured this volume with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones would present a good case for the composer. It does indeed.
Bliss Meditations on a Theme by John Blow
It’s a tidy bit of history that Bliss would be appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, the same year he would encounter John Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” Bliss (who had a commission for an orchestral work sitting on his desk) was inspired by one of the tunes in Blow’s setting and composed a set of meditations on the tune.
There are five Meditations, preceded by an Introduction and followed by an Interlude and Finale, each movement illustrates one of the psalm’s verses. The Introduction (“The Lord is my Shepherd – I will fear no evil”) balances brooding dark with softer-hued English pastoral.
The third Meditation “Lambs” is scherzo-like, while the fifth “Green Pastures,” is a gorgeous reverie for harp, winds and strings. The violence of the seventh Meditation “Through the valley of the shadow of death” is peppered with edgy percussion. The Finale “In the house of the Lord” is thrilling with Blow’s tune singing out gloriously.
The Metamorphic Variations were written in 1972 in tribute to the artist George Dannatt. Masterfully orchestrated and filled with shifting moods and tones, this is quite an orchestral showpiece. Yet for all the composer’s creativity and superb craftsmanship, the work does have a certain rambling quality and emotional detachment that makes it less than a revelation for me.
The Bournemouth Symphony plays brilliantly. The delicate wind and string writing in the Meditations comes off beautifully, the brass playing is stellar throughout and the percussionists really bang away in the Variations. The excellent liner notes by Giles Easterbrook are fascinating and the sound quality top-notch.
The late Geoffrey Burgon
While writing this I learned that Geoffrey Burgon passed away last month. I first encountered his music on Remembrance, a brilliant St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir recording on Hyperion. Burgon’s piece was a setting of the Nunc dimittis, a work that appeared in his soundtrack to the BBC film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This Chandos recording is the first recording of his orchestral music that I’ve encountered.
Geoffrey Burgon: Viola Concerto – Merciless Beauty – Cello Concerto
Burgon was a jazz trumpet player so it’s not surprising that he would associate the sound of the viola’s lower range with American dance music of the 40s. The Viola Concerto has an alto saxophone and drum kit in its orchestral texture, but it’s the composer’s crafty mix of the pungent percussion and warm-voiced viola that makes this a winning work. I was especially impressed by the Shostakovich-like tango in the middle movement. Philip Dukes is outstanding in the solo part and is blessed with the warm, amber tone that inspired Burgon.
The drum kit also appears in Burgon’s Cello Concerto, a work from 2007. There are darker things afoot in this piece. Burgon doubles the low winds and asks the percussion to play in their lowest registers in this score. This is brooding music that pays homage to film noir, (Burgon said “I began to view the soloist as a protagonist in such a film.”). The Concerto is a marvelous work and a major addition to the cello and orchestra repertoire, I hope that more cellists take it up. Cellist Josephine Knight has just the right bite for the Concerto’s more muscular passages while also playing gently and quietly in the moodier moments.
The song cycle Merciless Beauty was written in 1996-97 for countertenor James Bowman. Four of the seven songs in the cycle are set to texts by the contemporary writer Kit White while the others are from traditional British sources: Chaucer, Blake and the ever-popular Anonymous. This is a marvelous cycle filled with some lush melodies and showcases Burgon’s gift for achieving big emotional power with subtle gestures. These days there are few mezzo-sopranos who can stand up to Sarah Connolly (Burgon asked her to record the songs) and she is brilliant throughout. Connolly is sweet-voiced in Letter to Anna, pregnant and powerfully intense in The Sick Rose. Rumon Gamba leads the City of London Sinfonia in performances that are perfectly colored, masterfully shaped and beautifully recorded.
Geoffrey Burgon’s Nunc dimittis