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Briefly Noted: Mourning Michael Howells

available at Amazon
H. Howells, Requiem (inter alia),
Choir of Trinity College,
Cambridge, S. Layton

(released on April 10, 2012)
Hyperion CDA67914 | 64'09"
Most of the people who love the music of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) are those who have performed it. The music on this disc has already been recorded many times, often pairing the English composer's setting of the Requiem Mass with some of his other service music or with another composer's Mass or Requiem setting. The theme of tragic personal loss unites this movingly programmed disc, devoted entirely to the music of Howells. Howells was diagnosed early in life with Graves Disease, a misfortune that spared him from military service in World War I, although he was not left untouched by that conflict, as indeed was no one in Great Britain at that time. Devastation came to Howells later, in 1935, when his son, Michael, then only nine years old, died of polio. (His daughter, Ursula, became an actress and promoter of her father's music.) Howells composed his Requiem Mass, for unaccompanied voices, in 1932, but it soon became the basis for his expanded Hymnus Paradisi, a work dedicated to Michael's memory. It is also likely, as argued in fine liner notes by Paul Andrews, that Howells had the text Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing -- an English translation by Helen Waddell of a Latin hymn by Prudentius -- in mind for a memorial to Michael when he used it instead for his contribution to a memorial service for President Kennedy. The disc closes with the Howells hymn All My Hope on God Is Founded, again composed before Michael's death but given the tender name MICHAEL when Howells published it in 1936. (The only regret here is a tacky descant, by John Rutter, of course, added to the final verse.)

The disc is rounded out by the Hymn for Saint Cecilia, on an ecstatic text by Ursula Vaughan Williams, a poet who was the second wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; two settings of the Evensong canticles, the Gloucester Service and the St. Paul's Service; and the popish Salve regina, which is a gem in Howells output. The last of these dates from his student days at the Royal College of Music, where Charles Stanford, one of his teachers, recommended that Howells and his other students go to hear the outpouring of Catholic liturgical music then being revived at London's new Westminster Cathedral under that notorious Catholic convert, R. R. Terry. The performances here are all top-notch, from the mixed undergraduate choir (women instead of boys, that is) of Trinity College, Cambridge, under Stephen Layton, with blistering contributions by organ scholars Simon Bland and Jeremy Cole. The generally excellent Hyperion sound (engineering by David Hinitt) captures all of the dynamic range, subtlety, and acoustical reverberation of the rooms in Ely and Lincoln Cathedrals where the tracks were recorded. The next person who raves to me about the pedestrian music of Eric Whitacre will be assigned Herbert Howells for correction.

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