Herbert Howells: Piano Music

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The last months of any year always include several notable CD releases, and 2020 has been no exception. But for this month’s choice recording I am again eschewing the mainstream for something a little different, but truly exceptional and revelatory…

Herbert Howells  (1892-1983) was an English composer, organist and teacher who is chiefly remembered for his wondrous contribution to the Anglican choral tradition. Alongside these activities, he wrote a significant body of solo piano music, much of it unpublished, undiscovered and unloved until now.

Matthew Schellhorn is a leading performer who regularly appears at major venues and festivals throughout the UK, has recorded numerous critically acclaimed albums and given over a hundred premieres of new works, including several solo and chamber pieces he has himself commissioned.

Having previously performed music from Howells’ modest published output for the piano, Schellhorn was fascinated when presented with manuscripts of the composer’s unpublished music, and so began a journey of discovery that has led to the release of the first of two albums of this hitherto unknown music, brought to us on the Naxos label.

The alchemy between composer and pianist is tangible in these astonishing recordings, every work seemingly a masterpiece. Here then is the Pianodao review…

Howells’ Piano Works

Howells made a decision to commit to the life of the professional composer after attending the Three Choirs Festival in 1910 in his native Gloucestershire, where he heard Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and met the composer. In fact his subsequent portfolio career included performing, composing and teaching at the Royal College of Music, where he first studied with Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood.

The compositions included on Schellhorn’s first disc span some six decades, but reveal a remarkable consistency of inspiration, sophisticated craftsmanship and musical character. They are:

  1. Phantasy (1917)
  2. Harlequin Dreaming (1918)
  3. My Lord Harewood’s Galliard (1949)
  4. Finzi: His Rest (1956)

    Summer Idyls (1911)
  5. I. Meadow-Rest
  6. II. Summer-Song
  7. III. June-Haze
  8. IV. Down the Hills
  9. V. Quiet Woods
  10. VI. Near Midnight
  11. VII. In the Morning
  12. Siciliana (1958)

    Pavane and Galliard (1964)
  13. Pavane
  14. Galliard

    Petrus Suite (1967-72)
  15. I. Finnicle’s Scherzo
  16. II. Gavotte
  17. III. Vagrant Flute
  18. IV. Minuet Sine Nomine
  19. V. Bassoonic’s Dance
  20. VI. Odd’s Minuet
  21. VII. Toccatina

Summer Idyls (1911) was Howells’ first significant piano work, and though it bears some imprint of the influence of Elgar and Rachmaninov, it equally and obviously points to the English pastoral sensibility and French inspiration that became the defining hallmark of so much of his later music. Cast in seven short movements this Suite, composed for inclusion in a portfolio Howells submitted to the Royal College for his open scholarship, is an absolute gem.

Opening the disc, the Phantasy dates from the end of Howells’ student years in 1917. Here is a more virtuoso concert work, and as Jonathan Clinch writes in his short but informative CD booklet note,

“In Phantasy we hear possibly the most successful Ravel-pastiche by an English composer, with Jeux d’eau echoing throughout the playful scherzo. Nevertheless, the level of compositional craft marked out Howells’ original voice, with several commentators pointing to him as “the hope” for the next generation of British music.”

The more quirky Harlequin Dancing is one of the delightful smaller pieces included in the recording, others including the Lord Harewood’s Galliard, the Siciliana of 1958 and Pavane and Galliard (1964), all of which reveal Howells’ growing interest in reviving the essence of music from earlier times, and specifically Tudor England.

Most of these later pieces were written for players at the Royal College, as was the more substantial Petrus Suite, which comprises seven short pieces, whose lengthy gestation was due to several revisions the composer made.

Comparing this final Suite with his much earlier work in a similar vein beautifully underscores the parameters of Howells’ musical journey from English pastoral composer to neo-renaissance miniaturist.

Schellhorn‘s Recordings

A remarkable advocate for this repertoire, Schellhorn leaves us in no doubt as to its enduring value. The deft lightness of touch, apparent technical ease and attention to colourific details in the opening Phantasy sets the scene for a recital that is the embodiment of fine pianism from start to finish.

Schellhorn’s effortless virtuosity and artistic affinity with the music leads to playing which perfectly captures the quixotic moods that pervade much of this repertoire, evoking pastel shades and tender lyricism one moment, passionate and joyous eruptions the next, and occasionally (most notably in Finzi: His Rest) the more plangent tones of darkness and despair.

Capturing these fabulous interpretations in The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D’Abernon, Surry back in August 2019, producer and editor Rachel Smith and engineer Ben Connellan have done a fine job of delivering a natural sounding recording which preserves these many colours in Schellhorn’s playing.

Credit too, to The Herbert Howells Trust and The British Music Society, whose generous assistance made it possible for this music to once more see the light of day in this recording.

Closing Thoughts

Schellhorn’s Howells disc is, for me at least, one of the most surprising recordings released in 2020, as well as being one that I have enjoyed immensely and listened to “on repeat” in recent weeks. How extraordinary that such fine repertoire lay ignored in manuscript form for so long!

It would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss this disc as a mere curiosity; here is music which is more than just an interesting rediscovery, and very much deserves an ongoing place in the piano repertoire.

Truly superb!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.