Howells: Stabat Mater

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COMPOSERS: Howells
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Howells: Stabat Mater
WORKS: Stabat Mater; Te Deum; Sine nomine
PERFORMER: Benjamin Hulett, Alison Hill; The Bach Choir; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill

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Nearly half a century after The Bach Choir premiered Howells’s Stabat Mater they feature again in this new recording. Conductor David Hill elicits a sharply emotional response from them in the intense declamations of the first movement, where the Bournemouth Symphony strings are also cuttingly effective.

Both in the baleful ‘Cujus animam gementem’ and the ardent ‘Eia, Mater’ the plangent tenor Benjamin Hulett is full of character. Through no fault of his own he’s swamped by the full-throttle choir in ‘Fac ut portem’, and here discreetly closer miking would have helped.

After the pained introspection
of the Stabat Mater, where the composer continues to mourn the passing of his nine-year-old son 30 years earlier, the choir audibly relaxes in Howells’s ebullient setting of the Te Deum. The peroration, especially the sopranos’ soaring high notes on ‘Let me never be confounded’, is resplendent. Sine nomine, a mainly orchestral piece with vocalise from Howells’s early period, gets a similarly red-blooded performance.

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The recording captures the scale and broad-brush impact of the music-making impressively enough, although the detail could be more precisely focused. Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s Chandos recording of the Stabat is the only alternative version available, and remains serviceable. Hill’s new reading, however, clips a full three minutes off the timings. That extra urgency works very much in the piece’s favour, making the Naxos CD preferable. Terry Blain