Trinity College Choir, Cambridge / Stephen Layton

Herbert Howells: Requiem

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Herbert Howells: Requiem Review

by James Manheim

The music of Herbert Howells is a bit of a tough sell even for admirers of Ralph Vaughan Williams and other British composers of the middle 20th century. Although he was not really a Christian, most of his music is religious. But the pomp and circumstance of British music of the period is undercut by a sort of severity derived from Howells' study of Renaissance choral music and earlier English cathedral traditions. This collection of pieces, many of them quite obscure, is really beautifully performed and probably offers as good a place as any to start with Howells. The Requiem billed in the graphics occupies well under half the album. Composed in 1932, it was not published until 1980. The work furnished raw material for Howells' single most famous piece, Hymnus Paradisi (not included here), written after the death of his nine-year-old son from polio, and it is interesting to trace the origin of that seemingly time-specific work to earlier music. It's an unusual requiem setting that alternates English-language psalms with the Latin requiem text, and it exudes a kind of quiet warmth that makes it a distant cousin to the Brahms German Requiem. Its tone seems to pervade most of the other works on the album, notably Take him, earth, for cherishing (track 5), composed in memory of John F. Kennedy shortly after his assassination. Other works on the album reflect Howells' interest in earlier styles, but they are always at the service of his own aesthetic; his music is never neo-classic. The Choir of Trinity College, with its youthful, pure voices, is ideally suited to this music, and it has been honed to precision by conductor Stephen Layton. Hyperion's engineers excel in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral. Recommended to all those who enjoy English cathedral music, for this is a unique take on that venerable tradition.

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