The main event on this superb new CD from Hyperion is the complete cycle of the Morning and Evening Canticles and Communion Service composed specifically for King’s College, Cambridge. The listener is reminded that the ‘libretto’ for these liturgical masterpieces is by Thomas Cranmer as found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and as revised in the deposited prayer book of 1928. These words are amongst the supreme achievements of the English language. Unfortunately, it has been displaced in many Anglican churches in favour of the pedestrian language of the committee-designed Common Worship and other experimental liturgies which have sought to make Cranmer’s language more relevant to 21st century worshippers. Matins, Evensong and Holy Communion are presented in all their verbal glory and majesty on this CD.
During the Second World War, Herbert Howells took over playing at St John’s College, Cambridge, when the organist Robin Orr was on military service. The Anglican services inspired Howells to compose settings of the canticles. He has stated that these were written with the particular building in mind. Collegium Regale was the earliest, being completed in 1945. Services for Gloucester (1946), Canterbury (1946), St Paul’s (1951) and others were to follow.
The first part of Collegium Regale to be composed were the Jubilate and the Te Deum from Matins. The mood of these two canticles are typically optimistic and outward-looking, which may be surprising bearing in mind they were written during 1944.
The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1945) which resulted from a challenge issued to the composer by Dean Milner-Whyte of York and Dr Boris Ord who was then-organist and choir master at King’s College. Howells made a promise that ‘the mighty should be put down from their seat without a brute force that would deny this canticle’s feminine association’ as the Song of Mary. The Nunc Dimittis echoes the meekness of Simeon. All the stops are pulled out for the Gloria in both cases.
Ten years later, Howells wrote a setting of the Communion Service for King’s College. The liner notes remind the listener that the composer made musical reference to the earlier canticles in this settings. Howells was composing by this time in a ‘leaner, less sensual and impressionistic’ style towards a more ‘astringent’ sound. However, there is no doubt that any worshipper attending a full diet of worship (Matins, Holy Communion & Evensong) at King’s College (or any ‘quires and places where they sing’) where the full Collegium Regale was being used, would find the music both unified and satisfying from a liturgical and artistic point of view.
The liner notes do not give dates for the settings of Psalms 121‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’ and 122 ‘I was glad when they said unto me.’ It is suggested that it may have been around the time when Howells was a student at the Royal College of Music. These are ‘simple’ chants traditionally used by choirs at Matins on the ‘Morning of the Twenty-Seventh Day’. Howells has contributed two worthy examples of the genre, which are both characterised by a degree of sadness and introspection.
The Rhapsody in D flat major for organ the first of three Rhapsodies composed between 1915 and 1918. There was to be a Fourth example in 1958. This present work is often claimed to be a musical picture of the magnificent view from Chosen Hill, near Gloucester. It is certainly a romantic, impressionistic piece. The music is in arch form beginning and ending quietly and bookending a stunning climax. It is one of the highlights of English organ music.
Two short anthems are given. ‘I love all beauteous things’ which is a setting of the English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930) who was also a friend of the composer. It was composed in 1977 for a festival service celebrating the ‘Hands of the Craftsman’ at St Alban’s Abbey. It is a sympathetically constructed piece that reflects the words of the poem and Howells’ desire to create something truly beautiful.
The other anthem takes Psalm 84 9-10 as its text – ‘Behold, O God our defender, and look upon the face of thine anointed.’ This was first heard at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. It is thoughtful and sensitive in its restrained exposition of the text.
I would have preferred the track listings to have been a wee bit more specific as to which pieces on this CD were composed for King’s College and elsewhere. The dates of each work would have been useful here as well. The liner notes themselves, written by Paul Andrews are excellent and deliver all the details and dates required a well as setting the ‘Collegium Regale’ music into context. Texts of all the pieces are provided. A specification of the organ is also printed.
I cannot fault the singing, the organ playing or the interpretation of this music. The Choir of Trinity College with their director Stephen Layton, give commanding and poignant performances of these subtle and moving works. The organist Eleanor Kornas and Owain Park both make major contributions to the success of this disc. The choir chose the stunning setting of Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (I am not so struck on his design for the Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks or the now demolished Hutcheson ‘C’ Flats in the Gorbals) with its impressive Harrison and Harrison organ (1962), to feature this music, much of which was composed for a chapel some 85 miles away.
In 2002 Ronald Ebrecht edited a book entitled Maurice Durufle: The Last Impressionist. I would contend that the honour for this designation could well be shared with Herbert Howells. Howells, in his liturgical music (and elsewhere) has created a perfect fusion of impressionism and romanticism, sometimes tinged with something a little more acerbic that seems to define the English landscape with the Houses of God firmly planted in her soil. Nowhere is this more apparent than it the settings for King’s College Cambridge, presented on this CD..
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Collegium Regale: Morning Canticle (1944): Jubilate
Collegium Regale: Evening Canticle (1945): Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis
Psalm 122 (?)
I love all beauteous things (1977)
Collegium Regale: Office of Holy Communion (1956)
Psalm 121 (?)
Behold, O God our defender (1952)
Rhapsody in D flat major, op.17, no.1 (1915)
Collegium Regale: Te Deum (1944)
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/ Stephen Layton, Eleanor Kornas (organ), Owain Park (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.