HERBERT HOWELLS’s An English Mass dates from 1955-56, and is dedicated to Harold Darke (1888-1976) and his St Michael’s Singers, to celebrate Darke’s 40 years’ service at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London.
Organist at Cornhill since the First World War, Darke was also acting organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the Second (1941-5), at precisely the same time as Howells performed a similar function at St John’s College.
It is a credit to the City of London Choir and their conductor, Hilary Davan Wetton, that they included Howells’s rare An English Mass in a recent concert at St John’s, Smith Square. Many substantial pieces by Howells have, until the past decade, been hopelessly neglected. Hymnus Paradisi, composed in part as an elegy for his dead son Michael, though now established, is surprisingly rarely performed. The full-scale Missa Sabrinensis gets far fewer outings; likewise his Stabat Mater and early Mass in the Dorian Mode. Howells’s chamber works surface from time to time; his glorious solo songs and sonatas show up on programmes all too rarely.
This vital, subtly shaded and responsive performance of An English Mass did much to rectify the wrong. Howells’s mastery of the orchestra as well as voices was everywhere apparent. The curious, rather oblique opening to the Kyries felt like the start of a full oratorio; they proceeded through rich chordings and then an energetic sequence to subside to a magical pianissimo fade-out in the double bass.
In the organ part, not least initiating the Credo, I sensed a French underlay, akin to some of Howells’s well-known Evening Service settings. Yet, with a sparing use of orchestra (with or without woodwind), the textures feel thicker, and Howells allows himself, if anything, more scope with word-colouring — at the key sequence “He suffered and was buried”, for instance. The organ (played to powerful effect and with creative registerings by Mark Williams) has an important part to play at certain linking points.
Other notable touches included some intriguing harmonic twists (“And he shall come again”) and an expectant harp (“And I believe in the Holy Ghost”), plus an attractive, unexpected soprano solo (“I look for the Resurrection”).
The choir’s conclusion to the Credo was magnificent: this was just one of many stages where the large chorus’s command and variety of dynamics impressed. At several points, Howells rounds off a section so that the effect feels almost suspended — in the Sanctus, for instance. The Benedictus was slow and restrained — a little like Maurice Duruflé, whose Requiem followed in the second half; and a judicious use of solo voices from the choir worked wonders.
Likewise in the Agnus Dei, use of two solo sopranos in the first sequence and of men’s voices in the second produced notable contrasts; and again the choir showed its mettle in a beautifully phased fade-out.
Howells placed the Gloria last, and there again one hears the familiar voice of Howells the church musician. Again he uses soprano solos — the two here were fabulously clear and articulate — as indeed, time and again, was this exemplary choir: ever-attentive, finely expressive, and notably polished. The solo at “Thou that takest away . . .”, with pleading cello, was ravishing.
Howells’s ending is a bit drawn out, but the unforeseen effect of the sopranos reverberating back from the organ at the rear of St John’s was exhilarating.
Duruflé’s Requiem received an equally uplifting performance: piano sopranos, a well-measured bass solo (Will Dawes), an astounding still-ness in the Domine Jesu, plus nervy violas ushering in the Hostias all increased the intensity. So too did lilting sopranos, with fast-moving organ decoration, in the Sanctus. Great passion, free of undue sentimentality, marked the Pie Jesu.
Other high points were some first-rate men’s singing throughout the Libera Me; and the choir’s utter serenity concluding In Paradisum. Patently, this was choral singing of the highest order.