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Howells Canticles from the Collegiate Singers -
reviewed by REX HARLEY

'The balance of the choir is near perfect ...'

The Complete Morning and Evening Canticles of Herbert Howells Volume 1. © 2000 Priory Records Ltd

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 pieces.

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.

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Copyright © 9 July 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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