Howells: Psalm Preludes, Sets 1 & 2; Rhapsody No. 1; Rhapsody No. 2; Rhapsody No. 3; Rhapsody No. 4

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COMPOSERS: Howells
LABELS: Priory
WORKS: Psalm Preludes, Sets 1 & 2; Rhapsody No. 1; Rhapsody No. 2; Rhapsody No. 3; Rhapsody No. 4
PERFORMER: Stephen Cleobury (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: PRCD 480 DDD
To many people, the names of Herbert Howells and King’s College, Cambridge are synonymous with summer afternoons on the banks of the River Cam, followed by a leisurely stroll into the chapel’s glowing ambience to hear the Harrison organ charging the atmosphere with a well-chosen reed stop. But can such a magical spell be caught on a disc of Howells’s organ music?

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Although none of the works presented here was specifically written for the instrument at King’s, Howells’s soaring, rhapsodic musical style certainly fits like a glove. Yet all too often, especially in the Rhapsodies, much of the writing is improvisatory, as if Howells is savouring unusual harmonic twists and turns, rather than creating a tight, cohesive structure. It is at moments like these, and there are many, that the spell lifts and one’s concentration wanders. Stephen Cleobury, director of music at King’s, gives heartfelt performances, and his choice of tempi, control over dynamic shading and feeling for musical line are generally superior to those of Christopher Dearnley on Hyperion. Cleobury is also fastidious in his approach to Howells’s dynamic markings and applies rubato to the phrasing with telling effect. The last of the first set of Psalm Preludes is particularly compelling. Taking into account the recessed organ sound, this is a welcome issue. Stephen Haylett