Prom 61: Getting to the Heart of Howells and Elgar
August 30, 2012
United Kingdom Howells and Elgar: Miah Persson, soprano, Andrew Kennedy, tenor, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.8.2012 (CG)
Herbert Howells: Hymnus Paradisi (1936-8, revised 1950)
Sir Edward Elgar: Symphony no 1 in Ab major, Op 55, (1907-8)
Has any father loved his son more than Herbert Howells? Michael Kendrick Howells died of polio in 1935 at the age of nine, leaving the composer distraught. It is the sort of devastating experience every parent fears, but occurs all too often I personally now know three families who have had to deal with it, and the chances are, dear reader, that you will also know of similar tragedies.
How did Howells cope? This was a man who had previously led a relatively quiet, comfortable life teaching at the Royal College of Music (a position he held until 1979), adjudicating at music festivals, and occasionally composing. But from now on his life would be largely dedicated to the memory of his beloved son, and it was to be through music that he would express his sorrow and attempt some degree of resolution.
In the year after Michael’s death, Howells found it virtually impossible to compose at all, although he did produce a small unaccompanied Requiem in 1936. It was apparently his daughter Ursula who suggested that he might find some way of channeling his grief into music, and he embarked on tentative sketches for a large scale work with texts drawn from the Psalms, the Latin Mass, the burial service, and the Salisbury Diurnal, “Holy is the True Light.” A further spur occurred in 1937 when Ivor Gurney – the composer, poet, and great friend of Howells – died in a mental home. In 1938 the work was mostly completed, but Howells felt it so personal that he would not show it to anyone for another ten years. Eventually he revealed all to Dr Herbert Sumsion, the organist at Gloucester Cathedral, who in turn showed it to Gerald Finzi. The next cog in the wheel was none other than Vaughan Williams, who arranged for a performance at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1950, and it was immediately successful.
The work has been extensively performed and recorded since, while perhaps never quite making it into the absolute topmost echelons of choral and orchestral music, as is demonstrated by the fact that tonight, in 2012, it was receiving its very first performance at a Promenade concert. It is yet another demonstration of how many great British works have continued to be ignored by the BBC planners.
The title “Hymnus Paradisi” was apparently suggested by Sumsion and how appropriate it is. This almost unbearably emotional music searches for paradise and even finds it in several passages of ecstatic joy and beauty; but of course there cannot be complete resolution, not with a subject such as this. Howells composed his major work in an idiom that could be described as less modal than Vaughan Williams, and less chromatic than Delius, but nonetheless distinctively “English.” Unsurprisingly for a professor of composition and music theory, it is beautifully formed and imaginatively orchestrated, with parts for the soprano and tenor soloists and the choir expertly and sympathetically written. This should not suggest that it is in any way “stuffy” or “academic;” far from it! The work glows with inspiration from start to finish, and if I say I had tears welling up throughout tonight’s performance, perhaps you’ll understand what I mean. There’s a quiet confidence in the way the music speaks for much of the time, which is not to say that it doesn’t erupt with rhythmic fire periodically, particularly in the Sanctus, where it’s almost as if the Walton of Belshazzar strides in! But it is the weaving of the soloist’s contributions with the choir that lingers, having led us along a journey to eternity, where souls meet in a halo of holy light.
Tonight we were allowed to appreciate the depth of the music in an unhurried, unfussy performance which got right to the heart of the piece. The work of the soloists was impressively sincere, and well projected without being forced, and the huge dynamic range of the choir was simply astonishing – breathtakingly quiet and overwhelmingly radiant by turns. Howells probably imagined the work being performed in cathedrals, but the Albert Hall turned out to be perhaps an even better venue. He didn’t want it to sound “churchy,” and the strange acoustics of the hall seemed to suit it ideally. The reverberation time (depending on where you sit!) is not as long as in Gloucester or Worcester cathedrals, where the choral sound can be muddled and confused; tonight it was colossally impressive but clear. But, and it’s a small point this, was there something not quite right with the organ? The low pedal notes were accompanied by a strange rattling noise which suggested a defective pipe or something shaking in sympathy with the vibrations. It was mildly disconcerting. Martyn Brabbins, who very much impressed with his performance of Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony last year, was equally at home with this. I very much warm to his no-nonsense style of conducting, which is always crystal clear, and I admire his sense of tempo; everything seemed to flow just perfectly.
Throughout the concert I found myself thinking of another British conductor well known for championing the two works tonight – Vernon (“Tod”) Handley. He loved the Howells, partly because he suffered the loss of a child himself, and he loved Elgar’s First Symphony, which I saw him conduct on two occasions – I also have his recording, and it’s one I tend to compare others by. I suppose you could say that Handley followed in Boult’s footsteps in his Elgar, and Boult in Elgar’s own. Not all conductors fare so well. Held up by Hans Richter as the greatest symphony by a modern composer in 1908, this vast and splendid work needs rigorous control of tempo and mood to come off. In lesser hands it can ramble, although the construction is so continually ingenious that it certainly should not. Extraordinary, isn’t it, to think that at the first London performance the composer had to be brought on stage to receive the applause after the first movement, again after the second and third, and that the hall went completely barmy when it was all over! See? There was a time when contemporary composers were hugely popular!
The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Brabbins acquitted themselves very well indeed, and I don’t mean that to sound like faint praise. The BBC SO was on top form and the performance was packed with conviction; quietly confident at the start, grand and noble for the return of the motto theme at the end, startlingly bright and rhythmically exciting in the scherzo, but beautifully hushed in the slow movement. And all through, I was convinced by Elgar’s symphonic argument, immensely detailed orchestration, and by the sheer beauty of the slower sections. I don’t know if this was the ultimate performance, but it was totally convincing and thoroughly enjoyable and I came away feeling I’d been at one of the best Proms of the season.