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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Herbert Howells - Concertos & Dances (Vernon Handley)


Composer: Herbert Howells
  • (01) Concerto for string orchestra
  • (04) Three Dances for violin and orchestra, Op. 7
  • (07) Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Malcolm Stewart, violin
Kathryn Stott, piano

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley, conductor

Date: 1992
Label: Hyperion



I suppose I’m of a generation that grew up with the idea that Herbert Howells was one of those composers you only hear in church. With the odd slant, though, that unlike most such composers, he was still alive. Then a recording came along of “Hymnus Paradisi” and it emerged that he could write big things as well as small. But still religious. If you looked at the reference books you saw that he had started out by writing secular stuff – orchestral pieces, concertos, chamber music. But that had all stopped about fifty years before. Wild oats, one supposed. Rather as – in the opposite direction – Dorothy Sayers started out by writing religious dramas before settling into whodunits. Then Boult, in his last years, set down a few of the orchestral pieces for Lyrita. He also re-learnt the Concerto for String Orchestra, of which he had given the première in 1938, giving it a few performances and making a recording that was issued in 1974.

Gradually, as Hyperion and Chandos delved ever deeper into British music, Howells’s earlier career was mapped out and the disconcerting picture emerged of a brilliant young composer all set for a great future, yet so unsure of himself that he suddenly stopped composing after a single man’s protest at the première of his Second Piano Concerto in 1925. The deaths of Elgar and, more particularly, of Howells’s son Michael, drew from him the Concerto for String Orchestra, yet it was his only further orchestral work before he gave way to the stream of religious music that occupied him until late in life.

The Three Dances are ostensibly escapist idylls, written while the Great War raged around them. Yet there is a sense of uncertainty behind them which may stem from the composer’s own personality but more likely expresses a realization that the “green and pleasant land” had its future threatened. The first finishes with an ominous passage, brushed away by the final bars, while drum beats invade the calm of the closing measures of the gentle second dance. If the very short (01:52) third dance seems untroubled, its very brevity gives it the air of a question mark. There is more high art in these three miniatures than in many a more pretentious piece.

I wouldn’t include the ambitious Second Piano Concerto amongst such over-pretentious pieces, however. Though frequently big-boned, extrovert and muscular, it also has moments of brooding mystery and hushed withdrawal and handles the alternating moods with complete conviction. More than of any English concerto, it had me thinking of Prokofief, or of a post-impressionist such as Roussel. This latter may have been evoked by Stott’s performance. With a slightly recessed recording – truer to a real concert balance than we usually hear but not quite what we’re used to – and elegant texturing, and without playing down the more boisterous elements, she somehow conjures up slightly sepia-coloured images redolent of old French films. It would be interesting to hear a no-holds-barred American-style interpretation – I don’t know the Chandos recording by Howard Shelley – but Stott’s is certainly one way of playing it, and may in the end prove the best.

I recently listened to British piano concertos by Rowley, Darnton and Ferguson. Even the latter inspired me to no more than lukewarm enthusiasm. Here’s a British piano concerto that really does have some stature.

More lauded than the other works on the CD, the Concerto for String Orchestra says less to me. It’s certainly a far cry from the pastoral meanderings of the “cow-pat school”. Its brilliant – and, I think, protesting – moments are continually interrupted by darker meditations and it has at its centre an uneasy and obviously deeply-felt lament in memory of the composer’s son. But being deeply-felt doesn’t of itself guarantee that emotion will be conveyed to the listener. I’m afraid I grew impatient with the stop-go nature of it all. The British string orchestra repertoire is very large and I couldn’t escape the feeling I’d been here before all too often.

Was Howells’s really a youthful talent that had already run its course by the time he reached his Second Piano Concerto? If he had died in 1925, would we keep the Second Piano Concerto and a few other things in our repertoire as a constant reminder of the brilliant talent cut cruelly short, one who, like Hurlstone, Baines or Butterworth, would “undoubtedly” have done great things had he lived?

Since I recently commented that Handley’s performances of Stanford amount to time-beating rather than real conducting, I am pleased to report that the music of this slightly later generation seems to have fired him to a completely different level of achievement. I noticed countless cases of flexible phrasing and finely controlled dynamic shading that only a real conductor could have produced. Though I don’t know the recording of the Concerto for String Orchestra by his mentor Boult – or that by Hickox either – I didn’t feel that my negative reaction to the music was in any way due to the performance.

-- Christopher HowellMusicWeb International

More reviews:
BBC Music Magazine  PERFORMANCE: **** / SOUND: ****


Herbert Howells (17 October 1892 – 23 February 1983) was an English composer, organist, and teacher. Howells studied at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood. In 1920 he joined the staff of the RCM, and remained there until 1979. From the late 1930s, after the death of his son because of polio, Howells turned increasingly to choral and organ music. Though not an orthodox Christian, Howells was chiefly identified with the composition of religious music. His most famous works includes Hymnus ParadisiStabat Mater and Requiem.


Vernon Handley (11 November 1930 – 10 September 2008) was a British conductor, known particularly for his support of British composers. Handley studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and subsequently with Adrian Boult. He is much revered for his enthusiastic and untiring championship of British music, including many lesser known and relatively neglected composers whose artistic reputations and popularity he often helped to revive. He is said to have recorded as many as a hundred premières of British works, including highly successful series of recordings on labels such as Hyperion, Chandos, EMI and Conifer.


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