Some composers everybody loves; others inspire fervent devotion only within a small circle. Among the latter group is Herbert Howells. Organists and churchgoers love him for his luminous settings of the familiar words of the Anglican liturgy. Beyond that there are some lay people who adore Howells in the way certain readers adore Proust—slightly jealously, as if his music is a wonderful secret they don’t want to share too widely. But he’s never broken through to a big public.
This new double-CD release could win him new friends. It contains one of the best of those Anglican liturgical pieces, the English Mass of 1956, alongside two smaller choral pieces from the previous decade. Accompanying them are three organ pieces, and the first recording of the Cello Concerto, in the superbly reconstructed 2016 version by Christopher Palmer and Jonathan Clinch.
The performers could hardly be more apt for the music. The choral pieces are sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, with the Cambridge-based chamber orchestra the Britten Sinfonia. The soloist in the concerto is Guy Johnston, who’s always had a special affinity for English music. Stephen Cleobury, a lifelong enthusiast for Howells, conducts and plays the organ, in his farewell recording after directing the choir for 37 years.
Howells’s music can be unspotted and simple, as in Master Tallis’s Testament, a homage to his beloved Tudor music. More often, the radiance alternates with shadow, in harmonically intricate passages that can leave the first-time listener struggling to follow.
The intricacy is bound up with the music’s emotional ambiguity. Howells lost his faith after his son died from polio aged nine, a blow from which he never recovered. ‘You know there is nothing (after death),’ he once said to his daughter Ursula. So what his music offers is not assurance, but doubt hungering for faith. The Sanctus of a Mass is normally the moment for a shout of joy, but in Howells’s English Mass it sounds more like a plea for help, a feeling this choir captures beautifully.
The secret to performing Howells’s music—apart from ensuring those rich harmonies are bang in tune—is to catch its very English way of expressing deep feeling, which works by repression and hints rather than direct statement. Guy Johnston does this especially well in his performance of the Cello Concerto, which emerges as a substantial piece. And it’s not all repression; with the surprisingly joyful and energetic Finale he really seizes the moment.