A Significant Howells Premiere in Gloucester


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cheltenham Music Festival, Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Britten, Howells,. Guy Johnston (cello): Nicholas Morton (baritone); Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra/Martin André (conductor); Mark Biggins (assistant conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 9.7.2016. (JQ)

Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Gurney (orch, Howells)By a bierside; In Flanders

Britten – Four Sea Interludes (Peter Grimes)

Howells – Cello Concerto (first public performance)

This Cheltenham Festival concert was given in the magnificent surroundings of Gloucester Cathedral. The cathedral is one of the finest churches in Britain but as well as noble architecture and a splendid organ it possesses a very resonant acoustic. The acoustic was to have an impact on each of the pieces we heard.

The Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia was a most apt choice to open a programme in which Howells and Gurney featured strongly. In the early years of the last century they were fellow pupils of Sir Herbert Brewer, organist of Gloucester Cathedral, and began a friendship that ended only with Gurney’s death. The Fantasia was premiered, with the composer conducting, at a Three Choirs Festival concert in this very cathedral church in 1910. The new work immediately preceded a performance of The Dream of Gerontius and in his 1998 biography of Howells Paul Spicer quotes Howells’ own recollection that, after leaving the platform, VW came and sat right next to him and the two of them followed the performance of Gerontius, conducted by Elgar, in VW’s copy of the score. After the concert had ended, Spicer says, “Howells and Gurney wandered the streets of Gloucester for hours, unwilling to return home and unable to sleep from the power of the experience they had just shared.” Over a century later, the Fantasia still casts its spell. I’ve had the good fortune to hear it more than once before in the building where it was first unveiled and somehow Gloucester Cathedral’s acoustic seems to put an extra aura onto VW’s masterpiece.

There was an important and imaginative feature to tonight’s performance. The small secondary string ensemble was placed high up on the organ screen, immediately next to the console. From this vantage point, directed by Mark Biggins, the group functioned as a genuine semi-chorus; the effect was magical. Right from the magically hushed opening chord I dared to hope we were in for a special performance and I was not disappointed. The strings of the RCMSO played with great distinction. The sound was full and satisfying and the young players, expertly guided by Martin André, displayed a fine dynamic range. The solo quartet (Emma Oldfield, Emma Purslow, Joanna Patrick and Kieran Carter) made a fine contribution and I must single out for special praise the lustrous tone of violist Joanna Patrick. This was a seriously good performance of VW’s amazingly imaginative score which Herbert Howells rightly declared to be ‘’a supreme commentary by one great composer upon another’. Martin André paced and balanced the music with great understanding.

The Gurney songs are two of four that he is known to have composed between August 1916 and June 1917 while on active service in France. The others are Even such is time and Severn Meadows. Gurney sent the manuscripts of By a bierside and In Flanders home to Herbert Howells shortly after they were written. As Philip Lancaster related in his programme note, Howells showed them to Stanford who encouraged him to orchestrate them. Stanford conducted the first performance in March 1917 but thereafter the songs were almost never heard in their orchestral versions until Christopher Maltman made a recording in 1998 (review). Even now it’s very rare to hear them with orchestra.

The soloist tonight was Nicholas Morton, a student at the RCM. He has a fine, clear and well-focussed voice and he sang the songs with poise, good control and evident feeling. Both are magnificent examples of English song, among Gurneys most inspired. In the orchestral guise they lose the intimacy of the piano-accompanied original but they take on a new, more ‘public’ character. Howells’ orchestrations are extremely sympathetic and for much of the time he was careful not to overwhelm the singer. Nonetheless, and despite Martin André’s care over the balance, the resonance of the acoustic placed Nicholas Morton at a disadvantage at times. However, he sang the songs extremely well and it was very good indeed to hear them in this version. It’s worth noting that in 2003 the composer, Ian Venables, a great advocate for Gurney and his music as well as a distinguished composer of songs in his own right, orchestrated the other two songs written at the Front, using the same orchestral forces as Howells. Thus did Even such is time and Severn Meadows come to form part of the set of four ‘Trench Songs’. I’ve heard all four songs in the Howells/Venables orchestrations. They work very well indeed as a set and I would have welcomed the opportunity to experience all four in this concert.

Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes sat slightly oddly in this programme but the inclusion of this music meant there was a chance for the full forces of the RCMSO to be deployed. Martin André conducted the music very well. I’ve not seen him conduct before but it was clear that with him on the podium the orchestra was in excellent hands. There was no grandstanding to his direction; instead, he came across as a very practical conductor whose direction was clear. He and the players generated a fine atmosphere in ‘Dawn’. There was plenty of bustle in ‘Sunday Morning’, even if the sharp edge of the playing was somewhat blunted by the resonant acoustic. ‘Moonlight’ was very beautifully depicted at first and then, later, became more unsettled. Significant power was unleashed in ‘Storm’. Once again, the music was somewhat blurred in this building but it was still possible to hear that this was an excellent rendition of Britten’s depiction of a tempest.

The second half was devoted to Howells’ Cello Concerto. The work has a fascinating history which Jonathan Clinch outlined in his programme note, on which I draw for background information. The concerto was begun in 1933. Work was interrupted by the tragic early death of Howells’ son, Michael in 1935 and subsequently Howells dealt with his grief by immersing himself in composition. I knew that his sublime masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi was written at this time but I was unaware that the concerto was also a product – or perhaps I should say a partial product – of this period. The reason I was ignorant of it is because the two compositions had very different outcomes. Hymnus Paradisi was completed though Howells withheld it until friends, including Vaughan Williams, prevailed upon him to allow it to be performed at the 1950 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. The concerto, however, lay incomplete.

Jonathan Clinch relates that the first movement was completed and formed part of Howells’ D Mus submission to Oxford University in 1937. The previous year he had completed the second movement in short score but he did not orchestrate it; instead he sketched the finale. Movingly, Clinch tells us that it appears that Howells did some work on the concerto every year around the anniversary of Michael’s death “as a sort of mourning ritual.” However, little significant progress was made, it seems. In 1992, nine years after Howells’ death, Christopher Palmer discovered the manuscript and orchestrated the second movement, following the example of the competed first movement. The first movement, Fantasia, has been played and recorded as a standalone item. I know of at least one recording, by Moray Welsh, and I have a vague recollection that at least one other cellist (Alexander Baillie?) has also recorded it. On the same CD, recorded in 1995, Moray Welsh also played Christopher Palmer’s orchestration of the second movement, Threnody (review).

There the story rested until 2010 when Jonathan Clinch examined the sketches for the finale and set to work to re-order the sketches in a logical way, edit the material and then orchestrate it. Along the way he did a judicious amount of filing out the harmonies where Howells had left little beyond basic melodic lines. So by 2014 it was possible for cellist Alice Neary to make a recording, which I have not yet heard, of the now-completed Howells Cello concerto (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7317). Tonight’s performance, though, was the first occasion on which the concerto has been heard in public. I confess that it’s been a long time since I listened to the aforementioned Moray Welsh recording; I simply didn’t have sufficient time in the days preceding this concert. I’m glad, though, that I didn’t because that meant that I came to the completed score with fresh ears.

The concerto played for some 39 minutes in this performance, including judicious pauses between each movement. Nearly half of the work’s duration, some 17 minutes, is taken up by the first movement, Fantasia: Tranquillo assai andante. That marking, I’m fairly sure, must be just the opening tempo indication – I haven’t seen a score – because after a few minutes the music becomes much more vigorous. The opening is quite tranquil and has a pastoral feel to it; I felt that the spirit of Vaughan Williams was not far away at times. . The music is rhapsodic in nature and if it appears to lack a taut structure – not a comment that I make as a criticism – there’s much beauty to admire. Howells makes full use of the cello’s lyrical qualities – a characteristic that was accentuated by Guy Johnston’s rich, baritone sound. In due course the music becomes more animated. Here, the acoustic blurred the sound a little but it was still evident that Howells’ orchestral writing is colourful and imaginative. Guy Johnston had quite a lot of busy passagework to despatch but Howells gave him, above all, a considerable amount of lyrical material and Johnston played these passages delightfully.

The slow movement, Threnody; Lento calmato, assai teneramente, was elegiac and soulful. Here Howells’ writing is full of introspective melancholy which Johnston and the orchestra conveyed very well. The movement achieves a heartfelt orchestral climax after which the cellist resumes his brooding song. This was a very eloquent performance of deeply-felt music. The finale is marked Allegro vigoroso. Here there was a good deal of strongly accented, spirited music. Midway through a lovely, still episode for the soloist, delicately accompanied, led to an extended lyrical passage with more than a whiff of melancholy to it. The work ends, however, with a resumption of the vigorous music.

I’m keen to hear the full work again and hastened to snap up there and then a copy of the Alice Neary recording. It’s always difficult to judge music on a first hearing but my initial impression is that this is a fine concerto and it’s very good that, thanks to the scholarship and perception of Christopher Palmer and Jonathan Clinch, we can now hear the reconstructed full score. Mr Clinch was present to receive the applause that was his due. What a pity that Christopher Palmer, who died in 1995 at the very young age of 49, could not have heard the completed work. Guy Johnston was a fine advocate for the concerto and received excellent support from Martin André and the orchestra.

This was an excellent and enterprising concert by these very talented young musicians. It’s arguable that much of the programme might have been heard to better advantage in the drier, more immediate acoustic of Cheltenham Town Hall but then the cathedral’s mellow acoustic would not have contributed its magic to the Vaughan Williams Fantasia and tonight’s performance of that masterpiece was an experience that I would not have missed for anything.

John Quinn

1 thought on “A Significant Howells Premiere in Gloucester”

  1. Yes, the Vaughan Williams performance marvellously conveyed the numinous character of the work, so ideally suited to the ambience of the lofty space for which it was originally conceived.


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