Howells: A Sequence for St. Michael, Requiem & Take Him, Earth for Cherishing

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HOWELLS Behold, O God Our Defender. A Sequence for St Michael. 1 Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Chichester Service). Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing. Requiem. 2 Te Deum Elizabeth Patterson, cond; James Jordan Jr. (org); 1,2 Richard Clegg (ten); 2 Kathy Schuman (sop); 2 Phoenix Marcella Catlin (alt); 2 G. Luke Norman (bar); Gloriae Dei Cantores GLORIAE DEI CANTORES GDCD 053 (68:18 Text and Translation)

The boomlet of recordings of the choral music of Herbert Howells continues, which should be a cause for great rejoicing. While it is somewhat frustrating that each new Howells CD seems to bring only one or two new works into the recorded realm in tandem with some tried-and-true standards, instead of an entire disc of premiere performances, I am grateful for each new piece that sees the light of day (and the laser beam of my CD player).

I am especially gratified when the recordings are of the high caliber of this release. Gloriae Dei Cantores has had its praises hymned in these pages oft before and with good reason. This is, so to speak, an unabashedly American ensemble—lady sopranos and altos instead of cathedral boys’ choirs, with an ample, robust sound. Not that they ever turn cloudy in the blend of their ranks, or muddy in their diction. Instead, under Elizabeth Patterson’s able direction, they produce a big, thrilling sound that sweeps the listener up in an exhilarating cascade of vocal glory, abetted here by the excellent organ playing of James Jordan and SACD recording technology. Texts are included, and special note should be taken of the unusually elaborate work on the booklet, which is exceptionally intricate and beautiful in its mixture of pictures and typefaces.

The two familiar works on this disc are the Requiem, written in 1935 in response to the death of Howells’s son Michael from polio but suppressed by him until 1980, and Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing , Howells’s contribution in 1963 to memorials for assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Despite entering the repertoire only three decades ago, the Requiem (which Howells also adapted into his large-scale choral masterwork, the Hymnus Paradisi, which he reluctantly released to the public in 1950) has become a staple of many choirs, being one of his easier pieces to perform. After the oft-recorded Carol Anthems, these two works have more recordings than any others by the composer, a fact also reflected by the number of reviews in the Fanfare Archive. Only recently, in 35:6, I reviewed a recording of it by the Choir of St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, of New York, which I said was “the equal or superior of any other version available.” I am now pleased to place this version beside it, even possibly slightly ahead of it due to its superior soloists. Similarly, Take Him, Earth receives a ravishing, heartfelt performance that can hold its own with any other in the catalog.

Behold, O God Our Defender was composed by Howells for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, and is suitably grand and celebratory in atmosphere. Comparing it to the recording with the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir on Hyperion (there are several others as well, all but one also by English choirs) is almost like listening to two different pieces of music. Both are excellent, and your preference between American and British choirs will likely determine which you like more; in this case I plump for the home team on the west side of the Atlantic.

In Fanfare 34:1 I reviewed another fine disc of Howells choral music, with the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, under Andrew Nethsinga. That disc contained a performance of A Sequence for St. Michael , my initial acquaintance with that work. There I called it one of Howells’s more “challenging” works and remarked that “the choral writing in both is laden with thorny, unresolved dissonances.” The present performance smooths those out to some degree by the large wash of sound; I find that quite agreeable and consequently prefer this new recording, but those who like Howells on the spicier side will want the Chandos version instead.

To my knowledge the only previous recording of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Chichester Cathedral, composed in 1967, was in Volume 2 of the complete series of Howells’s canticles for morning and evening services issued on the Priory label. I have not heard that disc, but this version is certainly an excellent one. I have not been able to ascertain for certain if the Te Deum recorded here is a premiere issue or not, but I believe it is. It is not the same Te Deum that has been recorded previously by several other ensembles, which was written for the Church of St. Mary’s Redcliffe, Bristol. Commissioned by the Washington National Cathedral in 1983, it was originally believed that Howells was unable to do any substantive work on it before his final illness. However, in 1988 John Buttrey discovered the nearly completed sketches for the work in Howells’s manuscripts in the Royal College of Music Library and edited them for publication. In any case, it makes a valuable and welcome addition to the composer’s discography, and to the collection of any Howells aficionado, as does the entire disc.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: GDCD053

  • UPC: 709887005329

  • Label: Gloriae Dei Cantores

  • Composer: Herbert Howells

  • Conductor: Elizabeth C. Patterson

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Gloriae Dei Cantores