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CLASSICAL  October 2008

CLASSICAL October 2008

Subject:

Howells Chamber Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 3 Oct 2008 17:04:38 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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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, op. 38

mobius,
Sophia Rahman, piano
Naxos 8.557188 Total time: 66:05

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 premiere of
Vaughan Williams's 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 your 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 Prokofiev.

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.

Steve Schwartz

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