Showing great musical promise from an early age, Howells became an articled pupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, subsequently winning a scholarship to study composition with Stanford at the Royal College of Music, where he later returned to teach for nearly sixty years.
Much of his music after the death, from polio, of his nine-year old son Michael in 1935 was affected by his profound sense of loss, in particular his great choral work Hymnus Paradisi. His compositions include choral, orchestral, chamber organ and piano works as well as a considerable number of anthems, motets and services for the Anglican Church.
Of his choral works, Hymnus Paradisi must be acknowledged as his masterpiece; however, his Missa Sabrinensis and Stabat Mater are large scale works of considerable achievement and, indeed, beauty.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky made pioneering recordings of both the Missa Sabrinensis and Stabat Mater for Chandos. Now from Naxos www.naxos.com comes a new recording of the Stabat Mater with David Hill www.rayfieldallied.com/artists/david-hill conducting the Bach Choir www.thebachchoir.org.uk and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra www.bsolive.com with tenor, Benjamin Hulett www.benjaminhulett.com . This new release is coupled with two other Howells’ works, his Te Deum and Sine nomine with soprano Alison Hill http://alisonhill.org.uk joining Hill and his forces.
This new recording is equally welcome in that it includes some tempo corrections made by Howells. Andrew Burns’ excellent booklet notes tell us that, a month before this recording, David Hill was visiting Rhode Island where he met George Kent, a friend of Sir David Willcocks, who showed him a vocal score of the Stabat Mater with corrections over almost every page. These corrections have been incorporated into this new performance.
Howells’ Stabat Mater (1959-65), another direct musical response to the death of his son, was first performed by Robert Tear, the Bach Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Willcocks on the 22nd November 1965. It is dedicated to ‘The Bach Choir and in affectionate memory of Ralph Vaughan Williams’. How appropriate then it is that the Bach Choir finally have had the opportunity to record this work under their current Musical Director.
A theme from Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi echoes through moments of the gentle opening of the Stabat mater dolorosa before David Hill slowly builds drama and passion in the orchestra. When the choir suddenly interjects with the words Stabat Mater dolorosa, Hill brings a colossal impact that is then allowed to surge and fall, bringing out all of Howells’ glowing, passionate emotion.
The dark, ominous opening of Cujus animam gementem is picked up by the male voices with Hill allowing Howells’ fine development to grow naturally with lovely harmonic shifts and surges of ecstasy. Soon tenor, Benjamin Hulett sounds through the orchestra and choir at the words O quam tristis et afflicta (O how sad and afflicted) with his fine, strong clear tenor voice.
Choir and orchestra leap out in Quis est homo, full of anguish and intense fervour on the words Who is the man that would not weep, with the Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on really fine form, the orchestra particularly so in the lovely orchestral central section where Hill holds a terrific hushed tension as the choir enters on Vidit suum dulcem Natum.
The orchestral opening of Eia, Mater is beautifully shaped before Benjamin Hulett enters, supremely fine with the words Eia Mater, fons amoris. He cries out Fac ut ardeat cor meum (Grant that my heart may burn) full of powerful expression.
Sancta Mater brings edge of the seat tension as the music opens, the choir weaving around, full of intensity, with fine dramatic support from the Bournemouth players. It is in the quiet moments such as the hushed orchestral section towards the end that Hill‘s mastery of orchestral shaping is at its most profound. Soon the tenor enters again, bringing such drama and tension.
Choir and orchestra move forward with restraint in Fac ut portem Christi mortem (Let me bear Christ’s death); bells chime quietly as the hushed, restrained drama unfolds. The music builds in dynamics before the tenor comes in over the choir and orchestra, searingly on the words In flammatus et accentus (Lest I burn in flames). A supreme high point superbly handled here. The music tapers beautifully to a solo tenor part Face me cruce for the subdued coda.
A hushed orchestra opens Christe, cum sit hinc exire with lovely little orchestral details. Soon the choir joins to lead the music on, inexorably, slowly growing in drama, passion and ecstasy with the Bach Choir again showing their supreme skills as the music soars and swirls. When Benjamin Hulett enters above the choir and orchestra it is another wonderful moment with some extremely fine singing. The choir, orchestra and soloist lead to the coda where the tenor returns to the opening text Stabat mater dolorosa, again weaving around the choir as bells chime gently and the hushed orchestra concludes.
The overall timing of this performance is three minutes faster than Rozhdestvensky’s but it is not merely a case of speed. The tempi of this performance vary with Cujus animam gementem around two minutes faster and Christe, cum sit hinc exire over two minutes slower. Here, slower passages receive greater care allowing little details to emerge.
This new recording is a very fine achievement with a greater surging power and emotion yet with moments of exquisite hushed beauty. This will never be a choral society favourite due to the taxing choral writing that, alone, would mitigate against that. To have this fine new performance in first rate sound from the Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK will allow many new admirers to enjoy this wonderful work.
Howells’ earlier Te Deum (1944/77) leaps off the page dramatically full of the joy needed to offset the tension and drama of the Stabat Mater. Still there is Howells’ unique ecstatic outpouring and his brilliant, yet complex, choral writing, this time in orchestral guise. Again the Bach Choir are on terrific form, full of power and with a beautifully blended sound, observing every dynamic. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra certainly adds much in this orchestral version. I have the original version of this work, for choir and organ, from St Paul’s Cathedral with Christopher Dearnley (organ) and John Scott on Hyperion which is also very fine. There is something that makes Howells lift a setting beyond the ordinary, to higher levels, something this performance brings out fully in Hill’s terrific performance.
The even earlier Sine nomine (1922) opens with tenor, Benjamin Hulett against a swaying orchestral backdrop before soprano, Alison Hill, joins in the wordless vocalise. For all the influences, Vaughan Williams amongst them, there is still Howells’ own voice appearing through. Hill keeps up a fine pace throughout the central orchestral section with more terrific playing form the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra before the exquisite coda arrives. The two soloists are especially fine.
Again the recording lets every little detail shine through. The booklet notes are excellent and there are full texts and English translations.