Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Herbert Howells' Organ Music from Salisbury Cathedral

I own up to being confused about the genesis of Howells’s Flourish for a Bidding. I have long assumed that it referred to a ‘bidding prayer’ used in the Church. I was wrong. This attractive number was completed on August 29 1969 and was presented at an auction to raise money for the Royal College of Organists- hence ‘bidding’. The liner notes do not state how much was raised. Paul Andrews writing the notes for the Hyperion recording of this work suggests that George Thalben-Ball gave the first performance and that Novello paid the princely sum of £21.00 for the manuscript. The Flourish is less ‘romantic’ in sound than Howells earlier organ Rhapsodies and relies on jerky, ‘declamatory’ phrases to provide the momentum.
‘St Louis come to Clifton’ was Herbert Howells’ last essay for the organ. It was written in honour of Douglas Fox of Clifton College and appeared in a privately published volume entitled ‘A Garland for DGAF’. Fox had lost an arm during the Great War. The music is based on a fifteenth-century folk tune, ‘St Louis’ that had been dear to the composer’s heart for many years. Christopher S. Anderson in his Twentieth Century Organ Music recalls that Howells has shown this tune to Maurice Ravel; the elder composer had never made use of it. It is an attractive, if somewhat withdrawn, ‘farewell’ to the organ.
The ‘Intrata No. 2’ is a work that I have not (consciously) heard before. It was composed in honour of Sir Walter Alcock’s 80th birthday. Alcock, who was born in 1861, was an organist, professor at the Royal College of Music and composer.  He had studied with Sir John Stainer and Sir Arthur Sullivan, so provided a strong link to an earlier ‘school’ of English music. He is recalled as having been the only British organist to have played at three Coronations – Edward VII, George V and George VI. 
Howells’ tribute takes the form of an ‘arch-shaped’ structure similar to his First Rhapsody. The quieter opening and closing passages have greater depth and introspection. Strangely, there is no trace of an Intrata No. 1.

Much has been written about Herbert Howells’ ‘Three Rhapsodies’ composed between 1915 and 1918. Rhapsody No.1 in D flat is romantically charged and is ‘tinged with a nostalgic Victorianism.’ It is said to have been a musical ‘representation’ of Chosen Hill in Gloucestershire. The work is in arch form, beginning and ending in a restrained pianissimo and rising to a commanding climax. The second was written in Easingwold in the North Riding and features a complex but restrained middle section: it is much more strident and troubled than the previous work. Rhapsody No.3 is well-known for having been written in York during a Zeppelin raid on that city. It was completed at one sitting. This is a fervent work that belies any fear for his own safety that the composer may have entertained. The Rhapsodies are dedicated to Harold Darke, Walter Alcock and Edward Bairstow respectively.

In 1958 the composer returned to the form and produced a fourth example subtitled ‘bene psallite in vociferatione’. The liner notes do not give a translation of this soubriquet; it derives from St. Jerome’s translation of Psalm 32.3 from the Hebrew. Rendered into English it states ‘...diligently praise him in rejoicing.’ This is a ‘Festival’ piece which Christopher Palmer has noted ‘marks a new simplicity of style...the polyphony is less labyrinthine, the lines cleaner drawn, the harmonic texture more sinewy.’ Rhapsody No. 4 is dedicated to John Birch who was then organ professor at the Royal College of Music. It received its first performance, by the dedicatee in Westminster Abbey some ten years later.

The final work on this CD is Herbert Howells’ Organ Sonata dating from 1932. The liner notes explain that this was in fact his second sonata for the instrument, the first having been a part of his ‘scholarship submission’ to the Royal College of Music. This ‘second’ sonata is a huge work, conceived in three movements and lasting for just over half an hour.  The sound world of this piece is considerably different to the earlier Rhapsodies, although the Howells’ fingerprints are still there. I guess that this music seems to be closer to Walton than the more ‘romantic’ sound of the 1st Rhapsody.  The music is incisive, often fragmentary and has complex rhythmic patterns featuring ‘frequent off-beat accents’. The work is characterised by a ‘structural freedom’ balanced by the use of a single motivic cell to provide unity across the three movements.
The opening section is in sonata form and concludes with a powerful and moving peroration. The middle movement is much more pastoral in style without being ‘folksy.’ Howells begins with an eerie fugue. There is a strange fanfare for the ‘tuba’ stop which seems out of place in this largely diffuse harmonic world. The finale is really a huge toccata by another name. It makes use of fanfare figurations, pedal points, has a quiet reflective middle section and concludes with a massive statement of the main ‘theme,’
The Organ Sonata was first heard at the Royal Albert Hall on 20 March 1934. The performance was given by George Thalben-Ball, the work’s dedicatee. 

The sound quality of this disc is impressive. There is an effective balance between the loud and more intimate passages. The selection of music on this CD is wisely chosen, balancing the more popular Rhapsodies with a number of less-well-known pieces. Arkiv catalogue notes only two other recordings of the Sonata (Graham Barber & Robert Benjamin-Dobey) whereas there are some nine or ten versions of the Rhapsody No.3. The other works are similarly scantily represented. The CD has a generous 76 minutes playing time.
The liner notes are excellent and include the specification of the fine ‘Father’ Willis organ installed in 1876-7. In spite of many restorations, cleanings and rebuilds, the organ ‘remains a stylistic entity and an undiminished masterpiece.’ 

David Newsholme is currently the Assistant Organist at Canterbury Cathedral and also the Organist in that city’s King’s School. He is Musical Director of the Canterbury Singers. This is his first solo organ recording. For my money he gives definitive accounts of all these pieces and I look forward to hearing him in the future. Perhaps he will record the Howells ‘Psalm Tune Preludes’? 

Track Listing:
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Flourish for a Bidding (1968) ‘St Louis comes to Clifton’ (1977) Intrata No.2 (1941) Rhapsody for Organ No.1 in D flat major, Op.17 No.1 (1915) Rhapsody for Organ No.2 in E flat minor, Op, 17 No.2 (1918] Rhapsody for Organ No.3 in C sharp minor, Op.17 No.3 (1918) Rhapsody No. 4 (1958) Organ Sonata No.2 (1932)
David Newsholme (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Jonathan Clinch said...

Very glad you enjoyed the notes that I wrote! The disc is very fine indeed. I think you mean Psalm Preludes at the end (Howells didn't write any hymn tune preludes).

John France said...

Hmm are correct! Thanks for that!


John France said...

Now amended