Classical Music: Ian Venables & Herbert Howells
Ian Venables Requiem
The Royal College of Music, just before the Great War, boasted teachers of the highest musical eminence, Charles Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood, and pupils of the utmost promise, Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss and Arthur Benjamin.
Herbert Howells Anthems for Choir & Orchestra
Howells O pray for the peace of Jerusalem; Like as the Hart; The house of the Mind
Venables Requiem; God be merciful; Rhapsody 'In memoriam Herbert Howells'
for solo organ Op25
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia
conductor and solo organ
Delphian DCD 34252
Also among the student body, on an open scholarship, was Herbert Howells (1892-1983), the youngest of six children, brought up after his father’s bankruptcy in relatively poor circumstances, in Lydney, Gloucestershire. Arguably, he is the finest of his contemporaries, the last of the great English Romantic composers.
The disastrous premiere of his Second Piano Concerto
and the tragic death of his young son, Michael, in 1935, have been cited as reasons why he wrote so much liturgical music for the Anglican church, although in doing so he was continuing the tradition pursued by his mentor, Sandford. A deep sense of loss is movingly echoed in his Requiem
and, not least, the Hymnus Paradisi
, the first of four large-scale sacred choral works. His love of setting beautiful words to beautiful melody, he shared with his close friend, Ivor Gurney, another son of the lovely county of Gloucestershire and both poet and composer.
Though sheer beauty of sound runs like a silver thread through nearly all of Howells’ work, it would be a mistake to think he favours simple melody, harmony and texture of the kind heard here
From the mid-1940s onwards, Howells produced the body of Anglican liturgical music for which he is most remembered. Apparently, to pass the time while snowed in his cottage in Gloucester, in January 1941, only a matter of months after the trauma of his family home being irreparably bombed, in September of 1940, he penned a set of four anthems at the astonishing rate of one a day, originally entitled In Time of War.
The first of these, a beautiful setting of a portion of Psalm 122, O pray for the peace of Jerusalem,
has an unusually simple melody and highly appealing musical texture. Though sheer beauty of sound runs like a silver thread through nearly all of Howells’ work, it would be a mistake to think he favours simple melody, harmony and texture of the kind heard here. Apart from a rousing central climax struck up on the plangent phrase 'plenteousness within thy palaces', this is deeply contemplative, elegaic, restrained. One must speculate it speaks to the person who wrote it. Howells abominated war and violence with a quiet passion and it seems clear he poured his feelings into this anthem.
A second anthem, Like as the Hart
, no less rhapsodic but far more sinewy and sensuous, the text of which is the opening verses of Psalm 42
, is one of the composer’s most popular works in the Anglican choral repertoire, indeed one of the great classics of sacred music. The piece has an unusual edge to it, almost a bitter waft of the twentieth-century Blues' music oppressing it, flattening
Both anthems feature new instrumental accompaniments by Howard Eckdahl and Jonathan Clinch, scholarly aficionados of the composer.
The full-bodied grandeur of the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, is all we hope and expect a choral ensemble to be and they fully deserve to be recognised as equal among firsts
Howells’ rarely-performed motet, The House of the Mind,
composed in 1954, is an introspective meditation on a seventeenth-century metaphysical poem by Joseph Beaumont. The words belong to an entirely different poetic landscape from that of the Psalms or the songs of Edwardian poets. The conceit is one which John Donne would have well understood: the unconquerable power of the mind to imaginatively liberate itself from physical oppression. It is deeply moving.
The remainder of the programme features a major work by Ian Venables, born in 1955. Having composed many warmly lyrical pieces, including eight song cycles, he enjoys the reputation of being one of the finest song composers of his generation. This juxtaposition with Howells is consonant in a number of ways. Having - like Howells, himself - orchestrated some of Ivor Gurney’s songs and being President of the Arthur Bliss Society, we might say he is well connected in spirit. With the Rhapsody, In Memoriam Herbert Howells
, the final item on the programme, written in 1996, Venables pays homage and acknowledges an indebtedness.
Not just a song-composer, Venables has excelled in a number of other genres including chamber music. Here we find a rare foray into liturgical composition with a noble Requiem
. The movements of the Mass sung here, the Introit Requiem aeternam, Kyrie, Offertorium, Pie Jesu, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Libera Me and Lux Aeternum, are full of contrasting cadences and celestial beauty, quite unusual in modern composition. The Sanctus, in particular, is a thrilling piece of writing always ascending to the triumphal paean of the Hosanna! The Pie Jesu, which develops as every Catholic knows the final couplet of the hymn Dies irae, features as a motet in most musical settings of the Requiem Mass, but seldom, with the obvious exception of Faure’s, in a more affecting way. The Agnus holds us in the grip of suppressed passion, a riveting stasis , before the Lamb of God finally cleanses the sins of the world. Overall, Venables' harmonic language is lively, pulsing with passion but always fittingly controlled in a way appropriate to the solemnity of the occasion.
Choral music in the city of dreaming spires has, of course, been dominated until comparatively recently by the choirs of Christ Church, Magdalen and New College. The full-bodied grandeur of the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, is all we hope and expect a choral ensemble to be and they fully deserve to be recognised as equal among firsts, so to say. Accompanied by the buoyant Oxford Sinfonia, under conductor, organist and Musical Director of the college, Benjamin Nicholas, they are agile, sensitive, commanding, fluent.
This album is a flawless triumph, emotionally uplifting and intense, for them and for Delphian Records which release it on the 11th of November.