Herbert Howells Requiem (Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; conductor: Stephen Layton) Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

A glorious celebration of Howells' sacred output.

Charlotte Gardner 2012

Herbert Howells' Requiem must be one of the most beautiful and searingly moving works in the entire English sacred musical canon. Written in the early 30s but not released until 1980, it is inextricably linked to untimely youthful death; Howells modelled it on Walford Davies' A Short Requiem of 1915, written in memory of those killed in the war. Later, he drew heavily from it for Hymnus Paradisi, his memorial to the nine-year-old son he lost to polio in 1935.

However, despite all this, the Requiem manages to express not just deep grief but also eternal hope, largely thanks to its unusual structure. It juxtaposes traditional “Salvator mundi” and “Requiem aeternam” movements with settings of three of the Bible's most encouraging passages: Psalms 23 and 121, and John's vision in the book of Revelation of the new heavens and the new earth.

The Requiem appears here as the climax of a Howells-only programme that spans the decades of his career. A Hymn for St Cecilia, written in 1960, opens the disc, followed by a much earlier work, the 1916 Salve Regina. Also to be enjoyed are the Gloucester Service and the St Paul's Service, Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, and the rousing hymn All My Hope on God is Founded.

In all, it's a glorious celebration of Howells' sacred output, creating a highly sympathetic musical picture of a composer deeply affected by death (three of the works on this disc are linked in some way to his son), but also capable of much joy. Gorgeously sung throughout, this is repertoire perfectly suited to Trinity Choir's pure, chorister-like sound. Their graceful, dignified reading of the Requiem, framed within the wonderful acoustic of Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel, is one to cherish.

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