Howells/Martin

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Howells/Martin
LABELS: United
WORKS: Requiem; Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing (Motet on the Death of President Kennedy); Mass
PERFORMER: Sally Barber (soprano)Julia Field (alto)Mark Johnstone (tenor)Andrew Angus (baritone)Vasari/Jeremy Backhouse
CATALOGUE NO: 88033 CD DDD
United recordings have rather a good track record. What’s more, Vasari seem a good find for the label: a versatile, mixed-voice group, with attractive tone, painstaking musicianship and the ability to conjure up some splendid, rich sonorities.

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I did have a few reservations about Vasari’s last disc on the same label (88020), of works by the former King’s Cambridge choral scholar and early contemporary of the King’s Singers, Humphrey Clucas: attractive, French-inspired music, laden with echoes of Fauré and Duruflé and equally suited to boys’ tone. There the group seemed better at ease with Clucas’s tender Mater Dei sequence than in his appealing Requiem, which needs a more sensual treatment.

I have fewer doubts here, however. What is most satisfying is the quality of the breath control, which enables Vasari to do justice to the ‘frozen architecture’ of Howells’s contrapuntal writing. Shifts in dynamic are beautifully controlled; the crucial low bass line is on good form; and while missing the odd final consonant, Vasari hearteningly eschews the upper-line wobble that detracts from even their finest rivals. A luminous, pliant reading, full of awe and wonder (though the President Kennedy motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing is rather less well focused).

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Frank Martin’s Double Mass benefits equally from the group’s care over imitative detail. The attack is good; their rendering has ‘soul’. Just periodically the pitching of notes across a shared part might gain from the type of purity one associates with the Tallis Scholars. There are rival versions, aptly paired, of both main works available; but this will do me nicely. Roderic Dunnett