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Mirror Image

BASIL RAMSEY introduces a CD that concludes a series devoted to the organ music of Herbert Howells

CD Review

Having raised the question of the music of Herbert Howells earlier this week, which is rarely heard outside the UK, this is an opportunity to introduce a recent recording of his organ music. Adrian Partington completes the series started by Stephen Cleobury and Graham Barber, all of which encourages the listener to approach this music as a new experience. I wish for this record I could drop my own familiarity with the style and ambience of a vast space - in this case, Winchester Cathedral - which both helps and hinders this music.

The only clear evidence of a chronological development in style from Howells is a latterday use of chromaticism, sometimes intense, sometimes dramatic and even harsh. Modality is a subtle ingredient, ever present in this music, and one of Howells' unique features was a skill in balancing out these predilections. Only once did I ever hear him mention a musical influence of the past, and it was evident that this was profoundly significant - Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

Partington has assembled his programme with obvious care and respect for its composer. The five-movement Partita with which the record opens has a story: Howells knew Edward Heath at Oxford, and said that if his political ambitions should eventually lead to No.10 he would write him an organ piece. The composer kept his word and this Partita was the result. It is no 'piece', rather a substantial suite, in which is included another Sarabande, this time for the centenary of Vaughan Williams' birth in 1972, a touching , dignified tribute.

Of this programme of 15 pieces, two I've known for years with special respect for their fidelity to both the man and composer: The 'De Profundis' Prelude stems from the period of his daughter's struggle with tubercolosis, and 'Siciliano for a High Ceremony' was written for the Dalkeith wedding in St Giles's Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1953. This is music of the soul in both wretchedness and bliss.

It is impossible to push Howells into a neat pigeonhole ensuring him a suitable place in Britain's musical development. He is a maverick figure, capable of captivating some and alienating others by his elusiveness in the pack. His music is an exact mirror image of the man - dare one say timeless?

Adrian Partington gives us an intense survey of mostly occasional pieces, and the intrinsic mannerisms and visions are all in place. The Winchester organ and its spatial surroundings provide what is mostly a necessity for the music of Herbert Howells.


Copyright © Basil Ramsey, July 15th 1999


The Organ Music of Herbert Howells, volume 3

Adrian Partington plays the organ of Winchester Cathedral

Priory Records PRCD 547          DDD             77'38

Recorded and produced by Neil Collier

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