Howells
Penguinski
Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op.4
Piano Concerto No.2 in C, Op.39
Howard Shelley (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Richard Hickox
CD No: CHAN 9874
Duration: 71 minutes
Reviewed: April 2001
Herbert Norman Howells became a grand old man of British music, dying in 1983, aged 90. He had a 60-year stint teaching at the Royal College of Music and enjoyed a considerable reputation for his choral music – anthems and large-scale choral/orchestral works, most notably Hymnus Paradisi. There’s some lovely chamber music too. Richard Hickox has already recorded two CDs of Howells’s orchestral pieces for Chandos.
This latest one brings two first recordings. The four-minute Penguinski is a lively ballet score written to welcome the then Prince of Wales to the RCM in May 1933. The penguin-scenario has vanished; what is interesting is the musical allusion to Stravinsky, in particular Petrushka. A second and third playing reveals this miniature to have more going for it than might be first thought; certainly it’s typical of Howell’s craftsmanship in its vivid scoring and rhythmic side-slips.
The other recording premiere is the C minor concerto, for which John Rutter has completed the final bars (lost since the first performance in 1914; presumably the sole one as Rutter has also corrected a number of mistakes in the parts). It’s not a lost masterpiece, but Op.4 is a remarkably confident work for a young man just turned twenty. In particular the spacious opening movement of this 40-minute concerto, while it might be short on really distinctive ideas is controlled and developed with a very sure hand. Although very firmly in the ’romantic concerto’ tradition – rhetorical passages and long-breathed interludes with plenty of display and sweet lines for the soloist – Howells also establishes his empathy with pastoral expressionism and the use of folksong. There are derivatives in the outer movements of Irish melody – a legacy of his studies with Stanford perhaps – and there’s also a kinship with Vaughan Williams (whose Tallis Fantasia had made such an impact on Howells in 1910). What is fascinating is that Howells, while writing in a style commensurate with his experience, is composing something really quite personal. This is especially so of the slow middle movement – Delius’s nature-pictures are suggested, so too something regretful and private that would become ever-dominant as Howells matured. The ’walking-tune’ that the piano enters with (three minutes in) seems like a folk-tune with shadows; a very beautiful movement coloured by late-evening meditation of the countryside.
The finale is an ambitious synthesis of moods displaying imaginative instrumental touches and interplay; again open-space imagery is to the fore in the folk-like material. If, as in the opening movement, some of the ideas lack memorability, there’s no doubting Howells’s resource and control. Rutter’s final bars seem totally integrated.
The other concerto is brilliant and urbane, somewhat Gallic in the lyrical moments with a New York-panache in the allegros that paints a more cosmopolitan picture of Howells. There’s also a ’twenties razzmatazz that some of the 1925 London audience didn’t care for; a shame, it’s a wide-eyed piece with big tunes, motoric momentum and beautiful sounds and chords (some with ’blue’ notes!). The opening refrain reminds me of ’I Got Rhythm’ but Gershwin was still to write Girl Crazy from which that tune comes. There’s also some Copland-esque gestures; one might suppose that Howells wrote this concerto in Paris under the spell of Nadia Boulanger, but as Howells seems to have gone no further than the cities that hold the Three Choirs Festival, then his achievement appears to be a remarkable coincidence. To balance the geographical scales, the ’Gershwin refrain’ (running throughout the three linked movements) becomes suggestive of Big Ben’s chimes a few seconds into the slow movement – Vaughan Williams’s London mistily suggested.
Howard Shelley is a sympathetic and dashing soloist with Richard Hickox securing some fine playing from the BBCSO. I wish the recording wasn’t so spacious, but there’s plenty of detail and the balance between piano and orchestra is excellent.

 

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