On record – Matthew Schellhorn plays Howells: Piano Music Vol.1 (Naxos)

Matthew Schellhorn (piano) Herbert Howells Phantasy (1917) Harlequin Dancing (1918) My Lord Harewood’s Galliard (1949) Finzi: His Rest (1956) Summer Idyls (1911) Siciliana (1958) Pavane and Galliard (1964) Petrus Suite (1967-73) Naxos 8.571382 [65’52”] Producers Rachel Smith< Engineer Ben Connellan Recorded 19-21 August 2019 at The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D’Abernon Written by Richard Whitehouse What’s the story? Naxos continues its coverage of Herbert Howells with this initial instalment (presumably one more to follow) of his piano music, all pieces being previously unrecorded and authoritatively rendered by Matthew Schellhorn in what is a notable addition to the composer’s discography. What’s the music like? Long before his death (at the age of 90), Howells’s reputation rested firmly on his output of choral and organ works. Only quite recently has his considerable earlier output of orchestral and chamber music received serious re-evaluation, so revealing one whose distinct change of outlook in his early forties came about as much through cultural as personal reasons. Modest in scope and dimension, his piano music features no extended or career-defining works, yet its technical poise and always idiomatic feel for this instrument makes for a rewarding listen. The present selection interleaves miniatures and cyclical works in chronological order. As to the former, Phantasy finds the recently graduated composer assured in his handling of those impressionist aspects derived from Debussy and Ravel, while Harlequin Dreaming inhabits a world of Satie-esque whimsy and nonchalance as a reminder that Howells was then close friends with Bliss. Moving on to the Renaissance-inspired piano pieces of his later years, My Lord Harewood’s Galliard fuses its recherche manner with engaging harmonic astringency, whereas Finzi: His Rest is a pensively ambivalent in-memoriam to a younger colleague. The Siciliana is a languorous if non-indulgent take on the characteristic dance rhythm, while the Pavane and Galliard juxtaposes the confessional and combative with stark emotional acuity. The suites come from either end of Howells’s career, with all that implies for a half-century timespan. Summer Idyls [sic] formed a part of his portfolio for the Royal College of Music; its stylistic indebtedness to the mid- and late Romantics – not least Rachmaninov – would soon be left behind, but the appeal in these evocations of rural environs no doubt familiar from his childhood endures. Pick of the seven is the wistful rumination of ‘Near Midnight’, with the central ‘Minuet Sine Nomine’ similarly dominating the Petrus Suite in its limpid refinement. Otherwise, the seven pieces evince a sinewy counterpoint and tensile linearity    as are audibly a product of Howells’s late style, yet the origin of several in sketches made decades before confirms an overriding consistency of approach heightened by experience. Does it all work? Yes, allowing that Howells never sought to suffuse this music with the degree of emotional intensity reserved, at least in his maturity, for the larger choral works. Yet his quintessential expression is arguably to be found in those many shorter choral or organ pieces intended for liturgical purpose; in which case, the expressive focus and restraint of what is recorded here is its own justification. It could hardly have a more persuasive advocate than Schellhorn, who credits the late Stephen Cleobury for introducing him to the extent of Howells’s piano music. Is it recommended? Indeed. The closely unduly defined sound is ideal for piano music of this kind, and Jonathan Clinch’s annotations (along with a reminiscence by the pianist) are succinct and informative. The follow-up volume, mainly of better-known music, will doubtless prove just as rewarding. Listen & Buy
You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Naxos website