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Geraint Lewis
Gramophone, October 2013

THE SPECIALIST’S GUIDE TO…The music of Herbert Howells # 4

Having sketched this special work to the memory of his son in 1938, Howells put it in his bottom drawer, where he thought it would stay. But, when Herbert Sumsion asked if he had anything for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival of 1950, he tentatively opened the drawer. It still took the persuasive powers of Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Boult to persuade him to complete and orchestrate the score for performance. © 2013 Gramophone

Penguin Guide, January 2009

David Hill directs a superb version of Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi with excellent soloists, choir and orchestra. His account is direct and fresh, exciting in the more flamboyant parts of the score, such as in the Sanctus, yet relaxing beautifully in the reflective passages. Sir Patrick Spens, written at the age of 25, was Howells’s first major large-scale choral work. It opens with tremendous gusto, a bracing, briny, swashbuckling adventure which befits the nautical story of the text. It is excitingly and vividly performed here, with a superb recording to match.

Patrick Rucker
Fanfare, November 2007

David Hill directs these performances with tremendous skill and understanding, and the opulent sound of the 220-voice Bach Choir is simply irresistible. The sound and presence of the recording are superb, conveying without impediment the composer’s keen ear for rich textures and the handling of huge forces in a large space. Recommended without reservation. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

James McCarthy
Limelight, November 2007

Herbert Howells was the composer who, even more than Vaughan Williams, gave a contemporary 20th century sound to the Anglican liturgy. Hymnus paradisi is one of Howells’ most celebrated works. …the performance and recording are excellent…[Sir Patrick] Spens is a roistering, rambunctious piece for soloists, choir and orchestra. Naxos claims that apart from one performance by students in 1930, this is its first outing, certainly its first recording. Based on a Scottish ballad, it tells of the disastrous attempt to bring the daughter of Norway’s King to the King of Scotland. It’s a good piece.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, August 2007

"This is an extremely important release for two reasons. Firstly, it contains the first-ever recording of the first work for chorus and orchestra composed by Herbert Howells. Secondly, it brings to the catalogue a fine new performance of Howells’ supreme masterpiece, and one of the finest of all English choral works, Hymnus Paradisi."

"My colleague, John France, has already written in detail and with much enthusiasm about Sir Patrick Spens and I can do no better than refer readers to his comments about a work that this CD has brought to life for me, as it did for him.The piece receives a committed, dashing performance. Roderick Williams, as the eponymous hero, sings with his customary distinction. James Gilchrist, as the crew member with a premonition of doom, represents luxury casting. He sings very well and Katy Butler makes a favourable impression with her short but important – and high-lying – solo. David Hill whips up a real storm with his conducting and inspires the choir and orchestra to perform fervently. Realistically, I doubt Sir Patrick Spens will ever become established as a repertoire piece but its utter neglect up to now is unjustifiable and it deserves to be much better known. This splendid first recording gives it an excellent chance of proper appreciation at long last."

"Hymnus Paradisi, by contrast, is one of Howells’s best-known works. In my opinion this visionary masterpiece ranks with Gerontius and a handful of others in the pantheon of truly great English choral works. This new Naxos is a very strong competitor. The choir and orchestra are more set back from the microphones in comparison with the EMI recording and many will prefer that more natural concert hall perspective. The choir sings very well indeed for David Hill and the orchestra plays very well. Howells’ textures are often very complex and one sometime strains to hear details but even so I must say that I thought the BSO violins sounded a bit underpowered at times. One way in which the Naxos recording beats the EMI version is by achieving a much better – but not unnatural - separation between the two choirs in the passages where Howells divides his chorus."

"Hill has two very good soloists. Claire Rutter has a most demanding part to deliver – Howells requires his soprano to soar ecstatically for long stretches at a time – and she does very well indeed. I hear a wider vibrato than Heather Harper employs but not to any degree that troubles me. She certainly has the power to ride the huge climaxes but she’s also sensitive in the many quieter, more reflective stretches of the work. James Gilchrist is an admirable partner for her."

"An unqualified recommendation of this new recording of this great work. David Hill quite clearly has the measure of the score and he inspires his performers to transcend the many difficulties that it contains and to deliver a performance that burns with conviction, not just in the many Big Moments but also in this radiant work’s profusion of sublimely beautiful passages. As the last glowing bars die away quietly at the end of this performance one senses that one has had a rather special artistic experience and that’s as it should be after hearing Hymnus Paradisi."

"All admirers of Howells will be grateful to Naxos for letting us hear Sir Patrick Spens at long last. They should be equally grateful for a dedicated and eloquent performance of Hymnus Paradisi. This distinguished release is an undoubted feather in the Naxos cap."

John Steane
Gramophone, August 2007

A mystical masterpiece is boosted by this discovery by the 'other' Howells

Sir Patrick Spens is an early work and evidently so little regarded that it has been lost to view from 1930, the year of its only known performance, until its recent rediscovery by Paul Spicer. Hymnus Paradisi is the composer’s most widely acknowledged masterpiece. And whereas the masterpiece is mystical in character and intensely personal in its origins, the other is robust and extrovert, speedy in its story-telling, pictorial and dramatic in style.

Hymnus Paradisi has been recorded well and relatively often. This performance is perhaps the most careful in its observance of the score's many detailed directions. Choral and orchestral forces are well balanced and precise, with strong attack when that is wanted and well nourished tone for the searing lyricism, the tranquil beauty that is most characteristic. Clare Rutter sustains her long phrases and has the right consolatory warmth in her middle range, while tenor James Gilchrist sings with grace and fine diction. For all that, there is no difference between this and the two other recordings available so crucial as to constitute a superiority. If I have a personal preference it is for the deleted 1970 EMI recording under Willcocks with Heather Harper giving the most lovely account of the solo soprano part.

Choice may be influenced by the companion work: Vernon Handley has An English Mass, Richard Hickox A Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song. Sir Patrick Spens recorded now for the first time, is strong in its own merits. In this setting of the old Scots ballad Howells is at his most vigorously imaginative; it is difficult to understand the neglect. The very fact of such a life-affirming work is remarkable. War morale was at its lowest and Howells's ill-health (which had prevented him fighting) became so bad that he had to relinquish his post at Salisbury Cathedral. You would never guess.

June 2007

“Chivalric duty sent Sir Patrick Spens to a watery grave. Herbert Howells rip-roaring setting of the ancient Scottish sea-ballad, usually dismissed as a flawed early work, emerges as a neglected treasure in this world premiere recording. With its echoes of Stanford and Vaughan Williams’s a Sea Symphony, Sir Patrick Spens imposes a commanding presence from the off. The score also contains passages of beauty – notably so in its lament for Sir Patrick and his companions. David Hill’s deeply felt account of the Hymnus Paradisi, fine solo contributions and glorious all-round music making make this an unmissable release.” Andrew Stewart - Classic fM Magazine July Issue - Opera and Vocal review 5*

"Hill's new version (of Hymnus Paradisi) with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Bach Choir is equally welcome, above all for the solo contributions of Claire Rutter and James Gilchrist." David Hill - Review in The Financial Times, 26th May

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