Piano Music, Vol. 2: Country Pageant; A Little Book of Dances; Sonatina for Piano; Comme le cerf soupire…; Legend; Tunes for Piano etc
Matthew Schellhorn (piano)
Naxos 8.571383 65:19 mins
For a composer described by one source in the booklet as someone with an ‘emotional cauldron’ seething under surface restraint, this second dip into Herbert Howells’s neglected repertoire of piano music is unusually packed with pieces directly addressing the thoughts and feelings supposedly prompted by a wild flower, the River Mersey, promenading girls and boys, folk dancing, royal pomp: the list is long. The trouble with our listening experience is that some prove gauche student exercises from the 1900s and numerous others are trifles designed for young fingers. At least some in the Little Book of Dances have a sharper profile, helped by the same dance forms that nourished Britain’s Elizabethan composers and stimulated Howells too.
If this second selection falls below its predecessor in variety and quality, we can still appreciate Matthew Schellhorn’s devotion to the cause; enjoy his sensitive artistry, too, in phrasing, dynamics and subtleties of touch. And three later works definitely increase the fibre quotient, particularly the terse and tensile musings of the 15-minute Sonatina for Piano of 1971, left in manuscript in ten different versions, but now merged by Schellhorn into a convincing performing edition that deserves other pianists’ attention. The grave and intimate beauty of Comme le cerf soupire…, based on an old French melody, and Et nunc, et semper, described a quasi-minuet, are also rewarding. None of this album’s peaks and troughs will dislodge Howells’s choral music from the top spot in his oeuvre; but they do usefully round out the picture.