Howells Canticles from the Collegiate Singers -
reviewed by REX HARLEY
'The balance of the choir is near perfect ...'
All too often nowadays, the word 'amateur' tends to be used in a pejorative sense:
the shoddy opposite of 'professional'. So it does no harm to be reminded that what
the word actually tells us is that someone does something neither for money, nor duty,
but simply for love. Thus the accompanying booklet to this CD of Herbert Howells'
Evening Services can state proudly: 'The choir is entirely amateur.'
So, of course, is any of the cathedral choirs, certainly so far as the boys'
voices are concerned. The difference here is that The Collegiate Singers are all
adult, and the soprano and alto voices thus women's. These are not the forces for
which these pieces were composed. In addition, this recording employs a
double-strength choir more usually associated with the performance of an oratorio.
Personally, the issue of authenticity bothers me far less than the effect
achieved; and I have to say that, over all, any purist reservations which may have
been lurking in my mind were quickly swept away by the confidence, accuracy and
sheer guts of these performances. The balance of the choir is near perfect; the
absence of vibrato or breathiness in the upper parts makes for gloriously sinewy
singing; and the larger forces simply demonstrate the underlying grandeur of these
There are seven of Howells' grand total of twenty-one settings of the
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis on this disc, dating from 1918 to 1973, including
the première recording of his 1941 setting for men's voices, (though here
performed by women's voices!) It is distinctively Howells, but comparatively
routine, showing little of the harmonic inventiveness of his major settings: a
jobbing piece, reliable and four-square. By contrast, the lovely 'Sarum' service
from 1966 is quite ethereal in places, rhythmically thrilling in others, with its
repeated triplets, and alto and treble lines weaving sinuously together. Here the
choir demonstrates it can be subtle as well as strong, the range of dynamics
fully and carefully observed.
Copyright © 9 July 2003
Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK