The music of Herbert Howells has long been a fixture in British churches but continues to be absent from our concert halls. It’s true that much of his output, and almost all of his most popular works, are for unaccompanied choir or choir and organ, but his orchestral works include two piano concertos, a fantasia for cello and orchestra and several works for string orchestra among their number. Of some 15 works by him for chorus and orchestra, it is his Hymnus Paradisi which is probably the most popular, and it was this piece that brought Howells to the Proms for the first time in 27 years. Hymnus Paradisi was written in the years following the death of Howells’ son Michael, aged just nine years old, and it took three years to complete. When it was finished Howells hid this deeply personal utterance from the world for over ten years before finally revealing it to Vaughan Williams in 1950.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra was on fine form on Wednesday night, accompanying the BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir. Conductor Martyn Brabbins led a searching performance, which cut through to the heart of the work, delivering its meaning with a wonderful clarity. The searching string sound of the opening blended mellifluously with the bassoon, leading into the choral entrance to the words “Requiem aeternam”. The combined sound of the choirs was warm and soft at the opening, but they showed their variety and wide range of colours later.
Miah Persson is probably one of the finest sopranos working at the moment, and one of the few non-native singers who sings well in English. She was resplendent in this performance, soaring over both orchestra and choir in the fortes, and drawing the whole hall into the pianos. Andrew Kennedy also excelled, with his rich tenor always open and warm, never sounding forced or unnatural. There were moments of great beauty and excitement in this performance, but it was the overall message of the work that was most moving. Brabbins pulled out a deeply-felt central message of peace and suffering from the vast forces. Through the choice of texts and the method of their setting Howells seems to say “let the dead rest peacefully with god”, while never forgetting the anguish of the living, cruelly left behind. This meaning came through in spades in this performance, without ever slipping into sentimentality.
After the interval the orchestra performed Elgar’s Symphony no. 1, widely regarded as one of the best British examples of the form. Even the German conductor Hans Richter brimmed with enthusiasm for the work, describing it as “the greatest symphony of modern times.” It is also one of only a few British symphonies that is regularly performed overseas and known throughout the world. Tonight it was on home turf, performed by a British orchestra with a British conductor in Britain’s greatest music festival.
This was a performance full of contrasts and excitement, with captivatingly distant pianissimos and powerfully strident fortes. The interesting orchestral layout, with double basses lined up at the back of the stage, produced an impressive bass sound, showcasing the section audibly and visibly. While the colours and contrasts generally served the music, there were times where the power of the brass overwhelmed the texture, sounding forced, especially in the Scherzo, and the violin solos, though competent, left something to be desired. But these were minor moments in an otherwise fantastic performance. I have personally often been underwhelmed by this symphony, but the BBC SO under Brabbins brought it to life and made me love it from beginning to end.
conducting of Havergal
Brian’s ‘The Gothic’
Symphony last year,
Martyn Brabbins brings
another British magnum
opus to the Proms.
Herbert Howells wrote
Hymnus Paradisi ‘for the
drawer’ in the wake of
the tragically early death of his son. Only years
later was he persuaded to release a finished
score to the public. After this light-filled
memorial from a composer closely
identified with Gloucester Cathedral,
we revisit the masterpiece that, in 1908 –
the year of the first London Olympics –
announced a Worcester man’s arrival as perhaps
the greatest of British symphonists.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
Martyn Brabbins conducts Miah Persson and Andrew Kennedy with the BBC SO in Howells' Hymnus Paradisi © BBC / Chris Christodoulou