Howells: Sir Patrick Spens; Hymnus Paradisi

COMPOSERS: Howells
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Howells
WORKS: Sir Patrick Spens; Hymnus Paradisi
PERFORMER: Clare Rutter (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone); Bach Choir; Bournemouth SO/David Hill
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570352
Crippling numbness of loss’ was the effect on Herbert Howells of his young son Michael’s death from meningitis. The composer eventually confronted his bereavement in Hymnus Paradisi, but so emotionally close to the bone was the composition that it was left untouched for more than a decade before being premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in 1950.

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David Hill’s principal achievement in this recording is the way in which he sensitively presents the emotional nerve-ends of Howells’s moving work. Notwithstanding explicitly dramatic moments, the pervasive feel of the performance is one of intimate serenity, the ‘light and warmth of consolation’ which Howells wanted for himself, and for the listener.

Hill has, in James Gilchrist and Claire Rutter, quality soloists, though Rutter’s fast vibrato lends a slightly febrile quality to ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, where edginess of any kind should ideally be absent. Hard not to make comparisons here with Heather Harper in the famous 1970 Willcocks recording, now deleted.

The coupling is of major interest to Howells specialists – Sir Patrick Spens, a maritime cantata with solo baritone (the excellent Roderick Williams), recalls Stanford at his heartiest, with dabs of Walton and Vaughan Williams in the 25-year-old Howells’s choral writing.

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Vernon Handley’s rival Hyperion Hymnus has the more typically Howellsian English Mass as makeweight, and remains a formidable interpretation. This new Naxos issue, however (with sterling choral and orchestral contributions throughout), now comes seriously into the reckoning. Terry Blain