St John’s Magnificat – Choral Works by Herbert Howells

0 of 5 stars

A Sequence for St Michael
By the Waters of Babylon
A Spotless Rose
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Gloucester Service)
Psalm 142
A Grace for 10 Downing Street
One Thing Have I Desired
Like as the Hart
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense)
Salve Regina
Te Deum (Collegium Regale)

Paul Whelan (baritone), David Adams (violin), Alice Neary (cello) & Timothy Ravalde (organ) [By the Waters of Babylon]

Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Andrew Nethsingha

Recorded 9 & 10 January and 13 & 14 July 2009 in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: April 2010
Duration: 76 minutes



There is nothing to suggest that this release might be part of a series, but hopefully Chandos will find a way to add more of this glorious music to its catalogue, especially given the fine performances. As Paul Spicer relates in his admirable booklet note, the (for us!) fortunate fact that Herbert Howells (1892-1983) wrote so much church music, was partly due to the disastrous premiere of his Second Piano Concerto (a rather remarkable piece since recorded by Chandos) – the composer’s loss of confidence in one field led to a surge of activity in another. Another reason was the tragic death of Howells’s young son Michael in 1935, a loss from which the composer never recovered and one that is echoed so movingly in pieces such as “Requiem” and “Hymnus Paradisi” – so music for the church came to be the medium through which Howells was able to express his deepest and most personal messages.

Having said that, not all the music recorded here comes from this period of what Spicer called Howells’s “road to Damascus” conversion. “By the waters of Babylon” (1917) is an extraordinary scena or, in the composer’s description, a “rhapsody” for the unusual combination of baritone, violin, cello and organ, setting the well-known text that is Psalm 137. One might point loosely to a few echoes of folksong or Vaughan Williams, but there really isn’t anything quite like this piece in English music of the period. It is a brave, expressive, yet controlled piece, the odd hectoring moment aside, beautifully sung by Paul Whelan and a tribute to the disc’s producer John Rutter, that this bizarre combination of instruments sounds the most natural thing in the world. The setting of “Salve Regina” is even earlier (1912) and already shows Howells’s striking delight in the sonorities available from a choir – in retrospect it already sounds like nobody but Herbert Howells.

The rest of the music here ranges from classics such as “Like as the Hart” and “The Spotless Rose” to the rather more extended and very demanding “A Sequence for St Michael” from 1961 (the heart-breaking, desperate shouts of “Michael, Michael” reminding us of the composer’s personal tragedy) and canticle settings whose range, blues-infected harmonies and, indeed, outright eroticism must have rattled a few church windows in their time and firmly swept away any dusty associations of the Edwardian cloister.

The Choir of St John’s College under Andrew Nethsingha rises to the very considerable challenges of Howells’s writing – it takes a brave choir to negotiate some of this composer’s ‘un-cathedral’ harmonic progressions and have still have enough breath to get to the end of his seemingly endless, winding melodic lines. Diction is excellent, as is dynamic contrast – just once or twice do the more impassioned fortes become a little harsh, but this is a release that is a must for every lover of choral music – and also for those who think they know what English music for the church sounds like!

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