Howells Orchestral Vol2 Hickox Chandos CHAN9557

Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2001 and the recording is still available.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Suite for Orchestra: The Bs
Three Dances for Violin & Orchestra
In Green Ways
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
Yvonne Kenny (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1996, Blackheath Concert Halls, UK
Chandos CHAN9557 [65]

This is the second Chandos volume of Howells’ orchestral music.

The suite The Bs has often been mentioned but very rarely heard, if at all, after its early performances. This piece, written in 1914, is a series of musical portraits of some of Howells’ friends: Ivor Gurney (“Bartholomew”), Bliss (“Blissy”), Francis Warren (“Bunny”), Arthur Benjamin (“Benjee”) and of Howells himself (“Bublum”). Incidentally Howells allots himself the lion’s share since ‘his’ movement is by far the longest though it contains some of the finest music of the whole work. The lament evoking Gurney in his early days is a beautiful musical landscape and its ending is quite magical. “Blissy” and “Bunny” were somewhat recomposed in 1948 as the diptych Music for a Prince. The original version of “Blissy” (Scherzo in Arden in the 1948 reworking) is much more unpredictable, capricious and a good deal less disciplined, but still a fine piece of music. On the whole I find this colourful work most enjoyable and attractive. It is a real find and a jolly good piece of music. One of its most striking features is the orchestral mastery of Howells even at this early stage of his career.

The other novelty is the orchestral version of In Green Ways which Howells submitted for his doctorate. Howells’ orchestration is again superb and adds brilliance to what is one of his finest song cycles. If the orchestral writing of The Bs may still show some influences, e.g. Stravinsky, that of In Green Ways is vintage Howells with a quite remarkable assurance and sureness of touch. How such a work could have lingered unheard for such a long time, is the umpteenth mystery of the musical world. The Fantasia for cello & orchestra is yet another of these mysteries.

The Three Dances for violin and orchestra have been recorded before (Malcolm Stewart as soloist on Hyperion CDA66610) and may thus be somewhat better known. It is a short suite of carefree, though at times bitter-sweet, vignettes of great charm. An early piece, but still worth a hearing. I find the Hyperion reading marginally better, for Stewart and Handley opt for slightly quicker tempi and their reading is consequently somewhat lighter than Mordkovitch’s and Hickox’s. It seems to me that Mordkovitch and Hickox attempt to give some more weight to what is primarily a dreamy nostalgic work.

Nothing really serious to deter anyone from the present release which is very fine and should appeal to all lovers of Howells’ music. It has much to offer: rare works in very fine performances (that of The Bs I find particularly beautiful), superb warm recording and excellent notes by Lewis Foreman. Unreservedly recommended.

Hubert Culot

Availability: Chandos