David Adams / Dante Quartet / Gould Piano Trio

Herbert Howells: Chamber Music

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Herbert Howells is best known, even in Britain, for his cathedral-style choral works from later in his life, written after the death of his nine-year-old son from polio. But he deserves not to be put in this box, and this collection of chamber pieces gives an example of the riches that are missed by doing so. All three works have their origins in the 1910s, although two were extensively revised later, the String Quartet No. 3 ("In Gloucestershire") because Howells left the manuscript on a train and later reconstructed it from memory. The String Quartet No. 3 is a real crowd-pleaser. The adjective "pastoral" could be applied to it, but you are several fields away from Vaughan Williams here; Howells' writing is compact and shows a good deal of influence from Debussy. Sample the arresting melody at the beginning of the first movement and the role of the feathery accompanimental figure in the transition to the second subject group (starting at about the one-minute mark). The Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 21 is in the same vein, with an attached description of a natural landmark and a dedication to "Ivor Gurney who knows it," but it is a more lush work that brings harbingers, especially in the 1936 revision heard here, of Howells' later style. Lady Audrey's Suite is a delightful set of sketches written for a girl of Howells' acquaintance ("the four sleepy golliwogs' dance"), and it could enliven any chamber music concert. Naxos punches above its weight here with fine chamber sound from the Wyastone Concert Hall. The performances by the Dante Quartet in the String Quartet No. 3 and Lady Audrey's Suite, and the Gould Piano Trio with violist David Adams in the Piano Quartet, are suitably lyrical, and the entire program offers light music in the best sense.

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