Howells: The Winchester Service

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: The Winchester Service; Te Deum; Exultate Deo; Rhapsody No. 4; Jubilate Deo; Thee will I Love; Come, my Soul; Coventry Antiphon; The fear of the Lord; Antiphon; A Flourish for a Bidding
PERFORMER: Simon Bell (organ); Winchester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Lumsden
CATALOGUE NO: Hyperion CDA67853

Late Howells is not the music of a composer resting on comfortably reassuring certainties. Even in the 1965 Te Deum, a text which often elicits vacuously chirpy settings from church composers, Howells is serious, unsettled, the series of tremendous, yearningly extended vowels at the piece’s peroration a potent symbol of unassuaged spiritual questing.
The use of chromaticism in his music was long-standing, but somehow flickers more darkly in these later pieces. It’s virtually the principal driving force in the Rhapsody No. 4 for organ, where the melodic line seems but a thinly-crusted patina on the work’s restless harmonic shiftings.
The Winchester Service itself is also very striking, the Magnificat beginning with a long section of spare unison singing (expertly shaped here by the boy trebles), to a sparsely chorded, harmonically indeterminate organ accompaniment, perfectly weighted by Simon Bell. Again the mood is one of almost numbed incertitude, in a text which often elicits hearty effulgences of muscular Christianity. There is much less of a contrast with the traditionally more introverted Nunc Dimittis than usual.
The performances of the Winchester Cathedral Choir are so good you hardly register the need to ‘assess’ them – exactly as it should be in devotional music. That’s a huge tribute to the state of singing at the cathedral, and to Andrew Lumsden, who directs it. A marvellous CD, beautifully planned and executed. Terry Blain