Herbert Howells was acutely sensitive to the transience of life, having witnessed the loss of friends and contemporaries in the First World War and encountered deep personal tragedy when his son Michael died of polio at the age of just nine. And so a mood of elegiac yearning inhabits much of his choral music: the austere, lovely a cappella Requiem, and the elegant Take him, earth, for cherishing, commissioned to commemorate the death of President John F Kennedy, here lovingly performed by the young voices of Trinity College Choir, Cambridge. And yet Howells could write magnificently thrilling music too, as demonstrated by the fresh brilliance of A Hymn for St Cecilia, the spine-tingling grandeur of the St Paul's Service, or the life-affirming hymn All my hope on God is founded , here further sweetened with a descant by John Rutter.
Herbert Howells' Requiem must be one of the most beautiful and searingly moving works in the entire English sacred musical canon. Written in the early 30s but not released until 1980, it is inextricably linked to untimely youthful death; Howells modelled it on Walford Davies' A Short Requiem of 1915, written in memory of those killed in the war. Later, he drew heavily from it for Hymnus Paradisi, his memorial to the nine-year-old son he lost to polio in 1935.
However, despite all this, the Requiem manages to express not just deep grief but also eternal hope, largely thanks to its unusual structure. It juxtaposes traditional “Salvator mundi” and “Requiem aeternam” movements with settings of three of the Bible's most encouraging passages: Psalms 23 and 121, and John's vision in the book of Revelation of the new heavens and the new earth.
The Requiem appears here as the climax of a Howells-only programme that spans the decades of his career. A Hymn for St Cecilia, written in 1960, opens the disc, followed by a much earlier work, the 1916 Salve Regina. Also to be enjoyed are the Gloucester Service and the St Paul's Service, Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, and the rousing hymn All My Hope on God is Founded.
In all, it's a glorious celebration of Howells' sacred output, creating a highly sympathetic musical picture of a composer deeply affected by death (three of the works on this disc are linked in some way to his son), but also capable of much joy. Gorgeously sung throughout, this is repertoire perfectly suited to Trinity Choir's pure, chorister-like sound. Their graceful, dignified reading of the Requiem, framed within the wonderful acoustic of Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel, is one to cherish.
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