Two of my colleagues (Jonathan Woolf & John Quinn) at MusicWeb International have written excellent and well thought out reviews of this important two CD set of Herbert Howells’s ‘Complete Works for Violin and Piano.’ I find that I cannot disagree with their assessments. For obvious reasons, they have concentrated on the four major compositions on this release: The Violin Sonatas. I feel that I cannot add anything novel to what they have said. So, I am going to consider (belatedly) the miniatures in a little more detail than they have. I have investigated the composer’s catalogues and found a ‘missing’ work.
All that said, I was impressed with the Violin Sonatas, most especially with the World Premiere Recordings of the Sonata in B minor (1911) and the ‘restored original version’ of the Sonata No.2 in E flat major, op.26 (1917). Of interest is the ‘alternative opening’ for the B minor sonata.
The seven shorter pieces make a great introduction to Howells’s violin and piano music for those who may find a sonata lasting for more than 40 minutes a wee bit of a challenge. I reviewed these two CDs in chronological order, so eventually reached the Three Pieces op.28. These were published together in 1928. However, they were written some ten years previously. The opening ‘Pastorale’ is often dreamy and owes much to Debussy. But ‘reverie’ is not the only emotion here. There is anguish and even pain, which may be a consequence of the year it was written (1917). Howells has used a modal melody, with just the occasional hint at a whole tone scale. Towards the end, the violin plays a cantilena that may remind listeners of Vaughan Williams’s A Lark Ascending with its final upward ascent.
Rupert Marshall-Luck has swapped the second and third pieces of this Suite around from the published order. ‘Luchinushka’ was completed during February 1918. This is a deeply wrought lament with little optimism, but a great deal of beauty. The final number here is the lovely ‘Chosen Tune’. I hope I will be forgiven for elaborating on this short, but ultimately flawless work. It was written in 1917 to celebrate Herbert Howells’s engagement to Dorothy Dawe. The composer uses ‘Chosen’ as a symbol that stands for Churchdown Hill (also known as Chosen Hill), which is near Hucclecote, Gloucester. From the top of this 509ft hill there is a panoramic view over the Vale of Severn, Gloucester, the Cotswolds, Cheltenham and even as far as the Malverns and Wales. Churchdown Hill is home to the historic sites of Mussell Well and the so-called Roman Steps, and alas, a radio transmitter. This hill was a favorite haunt of Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi and Dorothy Dawe. In 1916, Howells had dedicated his great A minor Piano Quartet ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’.
‘Chosen Hill’ was later arranged for piano solo. In 1920, this was played by the organist George Thalben-Ball at the Howells’s wedding at Twigworth Church. It featured as part of an organ ‘fantasy’ woven around special contributions from Holst, Stanford, and Vaughan Williams - amongst several others.
For me, ‘Chosen Hill’ (in either incarnation) is one of the loveliest pieces ever written by a British composer. It is to instrumental music what Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ is to choral music. Absolute perfection.
Finally, George Thalben Ball played ‘Chosen Tune’ on the organ of Putney Vale Crematorium at the composer’s funeral in 1983. It was a fitting testimonial.
The liner notes pick up on the contrast between the title of the Cradle Song and the music that Howells has composed. This is hardly a lullaby, but a dark and melancholic little ‘threnody’ which builds to an acerbic climax. The double stopping in the opening and closing sections add to its intensity and concentration. ‘Cradle Song’ was completed on 2 July 1918 and was planned to be the first of Four Pieces for violin and piano, op.9.
The ‘Slow Air’ is cleverly designed. It presents two contrasting themes which are not developed but are reprised in a ‘condensed’ manner. It is delightful and belies its pedantic origins. More fun is the bouncy Country Air. This number ticks all the boxes for rustic jollity, tinged with just a hint of sadness. Lots of exciting fiddle playing with an equally energetic piano accompaniment. Both were composed for Associated Board Exams.
There is no evidence as to when the ‘Lento Assai Espressivo’ for violin and piano was composed. It is assumed to date from around 1918. Whatever its status, it is heartbreakingly beautiful. Lasting for just under four minutes, it explores a straightforward melody with a sympathetic accompaniment. After a passionate climax, the music sinks into a reverie. There is a modal feel here that nods towards Vaughan Williams. It was a great privilege to hear this piece for the first time.
As a completist, I checked the works recorded here against the catalogues included in Christopher Palmer’s Herbert Howells: A Celebration (Thames, 1996) and The Music of Herbert Howells edited by Phillip A Cooke and David Maw (Boydell Press, 2013). One early number is the attractively titled ‘Damsons’ for violin and piano. This survives only as incomplete sketches. It was apparently destined for inclusion in the Three Pieces, op.28. Completely missing is the ‘Poem’ composed c.1919. Equally elusive is an ‘Allegro inquieto’ which is also unfinished. It dates from the 1950s. One omission that could have been included was ‘A Croon’. This was published in the Associated Board 1927 Grade 1 Examination Pieces for violin in 1925. Being only Grade 1, it was likely considered detrimental to the composer’s reputation to incorporate it into this survey. Rupert Marshall Luck told me that he struggled as to whether to include it or not. On the other hand, as indicated above, the ‘Slow Air’ and the ‘Country Tune’ were also examination pieces and are recorded here. These were more advanced being for Grade 4 and above players.
Of huge added value is the dissertation length essay provided in the liner notes. This is in two parts. Paul Spicer has provided the composer’s biographical details, has contextualised the sonatas and presented a rationale for the editing process. Rupert Marshall-Luck has written the detailed programme notes. These include several musical examples, including comparisons between Elgar’s B minor Violin Concerto, op.61 and Howells’s B minor Sonata. Of especial interest is the extract from the manuscript showing the alteration made by Howells to the opening movement of the B minor sonata. There are the usual biographical details of the performers and an overview of the EM Records project.
As alluded to in my opening paragraph, this is an excellent recording in every way. From the repertoire, the performance by Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard, the sound recording and the documentation, this is an ideal CD release. It will be essential listening for all Howells’s enthusiasts (I am one) for many years to come. It does not eclipse the Hyperion CD (CHH 55139) which includes the three numbered violin sonatas but adds value to it. And being the ‘Complete Works’ (see exceptions noted above) it will provide students, players, and historians with an ideal base from which to generate further recitals and analytical assessments.
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor (1911)
Slow Air (1927)
Country Tune (1925)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No 2 in E flat major, op.26 (1917)(Restored Original Version)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor – alternative opening
Sonata for Violin and Piano No 1 in E Major, op.18 (1918)
Cradle Song, op.9 no.1 (1918)
Lento Assai Espressivo (c.1918)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No 3 in E Minor, op.38 (1923)
Three Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.28 (pub.1928)
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin)/Matthew Rickard (piano)
rec. 1-3 November 2013, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth.
EM RECORDS EMRCD019-20