Herbert Howells is best known for his large scale choral works. But as this release demonstrates, his chamber music is equally beautiful and well-crafted.
The Dante Quartet deliver sympathetic readings of Howell’s String Quartet No. 3 and Lady Audrey’s Suite. The Gould Trio, joined by pianist Benjamin Frith, performs the Piano Quartet in A minor with insightful beauty.
Howells embraced and internalized British folk traditions. His String Quartet No. 3, subtitled “In Gloucestershire,” skillfully conjures the Cotswald Hill country. The atmospheric opening almost seems like clearing mists. It eventually reveals the rolling hills that Howells hiked with his colleague and friend Ivor Gurney. The quartet’s modal harmonies and melodic structures evoke the English countryside.
Lady Audtry’s Suite Op. 19 receives its world recording premiere with this release. Howells wrote it as a Christmas present for a friend’s niece. This light-hearted work reminded me strongly of Gustav Holt’s “St. Paul’s Suite.”
The album concludes with the Piano Quartet in A minor Op. 21. Like the String Quartet No. 3, it was also inspired by the Gloucester countryside. When Howells first composed the work in 1916, it had a somewhat sunny character. Howells dedicated it “To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it.”
When Howells revised the work in 1936, Gurney’s mental and physical health was failing. he would have less than a year to live. The recast version of the quartet has an elegiac character to it. To me, it sounded as if Howells was recalling a happier time now gone forever.
If you love the British pastoral style of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, or Frederic Delius, you’ll enjoy this release. But I’d also recommend it to those who don’t necessarily enjoy it. The emotional undercurrents of the quartets have a beauty that goes beyond pastoral prettiness.
Herbert Howells: Chamber Music
Dante Quartet; Gould Piano Trio; David Adams, viola