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CD Review

Herbert Howells

Chamber Music

  • Rhapsodic Quintet for Clarinet & Strings, Op. 31
  • Clarinet Sonata (1946)
  • Prelude for Harp
  • A Near Minuet for Clarinet & Piano
  • Violin Sonata #3 in E minor, Op. 38
Alison Nicholls, harp
Sophia Rahman, piano
Naxos 8.557188 66:05
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Lovely.

A student of Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells is probably best known for his choral music, especially for his various settings of the canticles and other pieces for worship, but he wrote both orchestral and chamber music throughout his career. Indeed, early on, people thought of him mainly as a chamber-music composer.

From Stanford, Howells received a first-class technique, but the major influence on his music came in 1912, when he attended the première of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. It converted him from a Brahmsian viewpoint without turning him into an imitator of Vaughan Williams. Through the older composer, Howells added folk music, a little Debussy, and Tudor music to his sources without quite losing his Georgian roots. Unlike Vaughan Williams and Holst, Howells never committed himself to carving out his own Modernist niche. Rather, the modern movement gave him the freedom fully to be himself.

In 1915, Howells wrote his only harp piece for a fellow student at the Royal College of Music and then apparently forgot all about it for almost sixty years. The harpist, on her death, bequeathed the manuscript to the college, and in 1973 another student played the prelude for the elderly composer, who had no recollection of it whatsoever. The harp is a bear to write for, but Howells turns in a stylish, poetic work. He bases the work largely on an ostinato encompassing a minor third, over which a modal melody steals. As the piece progresses, the ostinato comes increasingly to the fore until it blossoms into its own theme. A rhapsodic episode follows, with a lot of amazing off-the-beat counter-melodies (apparently a workout for the harpist's thumbs) until the piece returns to its beginning.

The Rhapsodic Quintet from 1919 shows a strong Vaughan Williams component, particularly from a work like the older composer's 1912 Phantasy Quintet. One also notes the influence of the chamber-music enthusiast and patron Walter Wilson Cobbett, since the Howell's piece shows the mark of the Elizabethan viol fantasia, Cobbett's favorite form. The Quintet, in one movement, exhibits great sophistication, inventive textures, and a strong architectural grasp. The piece falls into three large sections. In the first, two pentatonic ideas – one ascending, the other descending – jostle one another in various guises. Through a subtle tempo and rhythmic changes, Howells manages to give the impression of a greater thematic richness than analysis can actually confirm. The first section begins on a passionate note and grows in intensity until the second major section, marked "doppio movimento ritmico," breaks out, quick and staccato, with the pizzicato energy of the second movement of Ravel's string quartet. Again, two ideas – one rising, one falling, only this time more chromatic – alternate. Howells builds to another passionate climax and begins to work his way back to the ideas of the first section in a long fall and leave-taking. The serene ending transforms the opening idea into the swaying motive of the Tallis Fantasia, but it's neither a quote nor a steal. The meaning differs. With Vaughan Williams, the sway intensifies the music. With Howells, the sway brings you to a safe haven and allows you to disembark. This piece shows Howells at his considerable best and argues for him as more universal than a good C of E musician.

In the Twenties, Howells, a music adjudicator, made a working trip to Canada. The liner notes try to make a case for Howells responding to the rugged landscape of the Canadian Rockies during the composition of the third violin sonata (1923), resulting in something more dissonant, more angular – in short, more modern – than most Howells of the same time. I wish I could see it. I find it no wilder than the Rhapsodic Quintet, primarily pentatonic, an example of Twenties English pastoralism. In fact, if you didn't know the story, nothing in the sonata would conjure up the Rockies in you mind. To me, it's Howells's native Gloucestershire all the way. Unusually, the sonata lacks a slow movement, although you don't miss it, since plenty of ruminative passages occur in the opening and closing movements. I find it an extremely poetic and beautiful work, if not an historically important one, filled with a rapture in the presence of nature, like all the best pastoralism. Again, Howell's ability to build a rich argument on just a few ideas impresses, as do his mastery of form and his ability to create memorable gestures – for example, a major second (eg, C and D sounding at the same time) that begins the sonata, almost like a call to reveille. The finale strikes me the most. It begins as a kind of rondo, but one which gradually loses energy rather than races to the finish. In the end, the major second sounds again as Howells recalls the main ideas of the first movement, this time "recollected in tranquility."

In the Forties, Howells wrote an oboe sonata for Eugene Goossens, who rejected it in no uncertain terms. Howells, rather sensitive about his work (he also withdrew his piano concerto after bad reviews), consigned the score to oblivion. This clarinet sonata (1946), in two substantial movements, may be a rewrite for the great Frederick Thurston. By this time, Howells has shed the pastoral manner and sounds like he may have been listening to Hindemith or Walton, with more pronounced syncopations and cross-rhythms and harmonies built on fourths and fifths, rather than on thirds. The first movement is, I suppose, technically a sonata, but the proportions are unusual, with the recap roughly a minute long. The second movement seems to announce a new world for Howells, with electrifying, muscular rhythms, mixed meters, and a tougher attitude toward harmony. It follows the general outlines of a rondo (again, the proportions are strange) and carries on a dialogue with the first movement in that its material alternates with previous ideas. However, Howells doesn't merely repeat himself. He does plenty to transform the character and rhythms of those ideas. This is probably the most ambitious piece on the program, and I can't think of a finer clarinet sonata off the top of my head. Take THAT, Goossens!

The Near-Minuet also comes from 1946, which leads to the speculation as to whether it began life as another movement to the clarinet sonata. It now stands as a miniature, full of close, brilliant counterpoint and a sardonic tone reminiscent of Prokofieff.

Mobius, a chamber ensemble based on the instrumentation of Ravel's Introduction et Allegro (string quartet, flute, clarinet, harp), has spread out to include pianist Sophia Rahman. They do well, but not spectacularly well. Their impeccable sensitivity to one another off-sets the occasional loss of architectural focus. Granted, Howells's structural subtlety doesn't make things easy. Furthermore, the recording balance puts the piano too far forward to the point where it veils the principal. Still, the music should recommend itself to chamber-music lovers – elegant, intricate, and genuinely felt.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz