Michael ‘A Fanfare Setting’ [arr. Christopher Palmer & David Hill]
Helena Dix (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor) &
Roderick Williams (baritone)
The Bach Choir
BBC Concert Orchestra
Recorded 10-12 May 2019 at Watford Town Hall, Hertfordshire, England
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: HYPERION CDA68294
Duration: 72 minutes
Amongst Herbert Howells’s large-scale choral works there is perhaps none so demanding as Missa Sabrinensis – deemed problematic since its Worcester Cathedral premiere under the composer in 1954. Its fortunes were revived in 1982 by a Bach Choir performance (Sir David Willcocks conducting to celebrate Howells’s ninetieth-birthday) and, despite a fine first recording featuring the London Symphony Chorus & LSO conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Chandos,1994), Missa Sabrinensis has remained beyond the reach of most choirs.
With this Hyperion issue, David Hill and the Bach Choir have completed their traversal of Howells’s three major choral works, Hymnus Paradisum and Stabat Mater (Naxos) and surmount the challenges of this non-liturgical Mass with remarkable assurance. Given Sabrinensis stretches vocal stamina to the limits, and demands pinpoint accuracy, this account is a remarkable achievement. For this recording the score has been prepared by Paul Spicer and Hill which allows us “to hear for the first time Howells’s music as he had originally intended, with all of the intricate detail.”
If that’s a strong claim, there’s no denying the sense of commitment and the sureness with which Hill navigates his way through the complex polyphony. Indeed, the performers respond to the muscular counterpoint with unflagging energy. That Hill has an iron-grip on the work’s symphonic scope is clear from the way he integrates its rhapsodic agonising and ecstatic yearnings with consummate ease. It’s a feat of skill not so unlike Howells’s capacity to forge a personal voice while clearly paying tribute to Delius (possibly too the melodic contortions of Bax), the processional tread of Holst, Vaughan Williams, and festive exuberance of Walton. But for all the influences and their fervent articulation, this is music that may, for some, arouse measured admiration rather than unquestioning devotion, such is the weight of contrapuntal texture and prolonged intensity of expression over sixty-seven minutes.
What’s clear is Hill’s intuitive understanding of pacing, no more so than in the ‘Credo’, with few if any concessions to singers in its relentless and surging paragraphs. In the long closing furlong, from “Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum”, a passage of pressing vitality (indeed, the marking is incalzando), which could be overwrought, the Choir produces a wonderfully buoyant and rhythmically taut response, fresh and unequivocal.
The explosive momentum of the ‘Gloria’, an emotional rollercoaster, by turns thrilling and poignant, includes a hushed and perfectly balanced vocal quartet at “miserere nobis”, a spellbinding moment. Elsewhere, there is fiercely exultant singing in the ‘Sanctus’, and serenity in the ‘Benedictus’, in which a flute, probing vocal lines and a luminous semi-chorus bring echoes of Holst. Framing these movements is the performers’ passionate engagement in the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’, anguished ecstasy fully realised and sustained quieter singing marvellously accomplished.
Throughout there are splendid contributions from the soloists whose function Howells wanted to “adorn the contrapuntal texture of the chorus.” Helena Dix (at thirty-six hours’ notice) and Benjamin Hulett both dazzle in their soaring lines, Christine Rice adds heart-stopping tenderness and Roderick Williams brings characteristic warmth of expression.
Altogether, David Hill generates a Rolls-Royce account of Sabrinensis, capping the release with Christopher Palmer’s splendidly festive version of Howells’s hymn-tune ‘Michael’. With excellent sound quality and a comprehensive booklet, this is one of the year’s choral highlights.