This celebration of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) forms Stephen Cleobury’s final recordings from King’s College Cambridge where he has been director of music for thirty-seven years. Of particular interest are the rarely performed An English Mass and the Cello Concerto, although both are previously recorded.
The latter is one of Howells’s most substantial orchestral works and belongs to the decade of his masterly Hymnus Paradisi, both sharing Howells’s grief for the loss of his son Michael in 1935. Begun two years earlier, only the first movement of the Concerto was completed and in 1937 submitted as a Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra for Howells’s Oxford DMus. The planned second movement remained in short score (later orchestrated by Christopher Palmer) and the Finale left as sketches until Jonathan Clinch completed it. Owing to Cleobury’s heart surgery at the time of recording, the Concerto is conducted by Christopher Seaman; he, with Guy Johnston and Britten Sinfonia, respond to Howells’s rapt score with fervour. The rhapsodic first movement is given due respect to its spacious arch-like design and the central ‘Threnody’ is sculpted with warm expressivity, its elegiac ruminations fully explored. If this dark-hued lament reaches into the core of the composer’s heartache, then the colourful Finale with its Walton-like vigour is no-less tinged with melancholic lyricism.
An English Mass, premiered in June 1956 and dedicated to Harold Darke, has never quite entered the repertoire. There’s no lack of drama in the exuberant ‘Gloria’ or the restless ‘Creed’ (the latter conducted by Ben Parry while Cleobury was sidelined), nor ecstasy in the long breathed ‘Sanctus’, but the work’s sinewy counterpoint and general sobriety have perhaps deflected interest from all but the most enterprising choral groups. There’s nothing remotely uncertain about the singing here, nor Cleobury’s (and Parry’s) sure grasp of the music’s emotional intensity.
King’s Voices join the regular scholars and choristers for the Te Deum (deftly orchestrated by Howells from the organ original and complete with a new festive introduction); it works magnificently (timpani brilliantly effective at climatic moments) and more persuasively paced than the Naxos version under David Hill. The Magnificat (this is the premiere recording of John Rutter’s scoring) is no less grandly or imaginatively conceived; Cleobury and his forces rise splendidly to the occasion, and he is also a fine exponent of the organ works.
The recorded sound is excellent and there are informative booklet notes (albeit without sung texts).