Herbert Howells: Hymnus paradisi, Sir Patrick Spens
Rutter, Gilchrist, Williams, Butler
The Bach Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, David Hill
The adaptation of the folk song 'Sir Patrick Spens' comes first here. This is apparently the world premiere recording and it seems it has only ever been performed once in its history - that was back in 1930. One is almost tempted to say one is not entirely surprised, but I think this would be unfair. My feeling is that, although the music ranges from pretty to dramatic and is well accomplished in many ways, the whole thing is pretty well over the top and seems somewhat dated to modern ears - and not significantly different from many works of its ilk. Like many of these, it is impossible to follow the narrative without the text in front of you - which, when written in the listener's native tongue, is regrettable to say the least. I think I'll stick with the version by Fairport Convention on their Full House album!
I have already indicated that I might be being unnecessarily harsh here, and I'll admit that I did start warming to the piece as it progressed, but I certainly would not encourage anyone to buy this CD for this item alone.
Turning to the major opus on the disc, I have a complete reversal in reaction. This is a splendid work which I cannot praise highly enough. Writing in reaction to the tragic loss of his 9 year-old son, Michael, Howells drew on a previously abandoned Requiem and included translations of parts of mediaeval hymns and extracts from the Psalms and Robert Bridges poetry, Hymnus paradisi was composed by 1938 and put away as it was so personal. It was finally brought out and performed at the Three Choirs Festival in 1950, having been encouraged by no lesser lights than Ralph Vaughan Williams, Adrian Boult and Gerald Finzi among others.
The music is sublime as are the vocal settings and must be almost unparallelled in English Music for their beauty and drama. Personally, I cannot but think that the wider setting of the Twentieth Century turmoils including the two Global Conflicts and the vast struggles and social changes they instigated are somehow reflected in this work, and although it is powerful enough to endure as great music for many ages to come, at the same time it is highly illustrative of the age in which it was created.