Herbert Howells: Piano Music 1. Matthew Schellhorn, piano. © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

CD Spotlight

Imaginative Prowess

GERALD FENECH listens to piano music by the twentieth century English composer Herbert Howells

'Deeply attractive music, sensitively played and sumptuously recorded.'


Born in 1892, Herbert Howells' earliest musical education came from his sister at an old upright piano in their Lydney family home. Seeing promise in the young boy, his school headmaster encouraged him, and a local squire funded more serious musical tuition with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral. The link with Gloucester eventually drew the composer into the ambience of the annual Three Choirs Festival, where he experienced not only contemporary music but also the splendours of the oratorio tradition. Success in an open scholarship at the Royal College of Music in 1912 became the catalyst to a whole new world of music.

With the move to London Howells discarded his early musical style in favour of a much more refined approach, where every note counted. The move also allowed the composer to not only soak up all the latest music, but also to mix with the aristocracy at salon recitals in the homes of the rich and famous in Kensington and beyond. It was also in London that Howells became acquainted with the French school of Debussy and Ravel, something that left a great impact on the budding composer. Diaghilev's wartime performances of the 'Ballets Russes' also cast their spell on Howells's musical language of later years. He joined the staff of the Royal College of Music as a teacher in 1920, remaining there till the end of his career and until ill health forced him to diminish his musical activities in the late 1970s. He died in 1983 leaving behind him a catalogue of extremely beautiful and important works, particularly in the choral, chamber and instrumental genres.

Unfortunately, Howells' fame rests almost solely on his choral and vocal works. The remainder of his output, his piano pieces in particular, remain somewhat by the wayside, so this Naxos initiative dedicated to the composer's complete keyboard works is of immense importance. Indeed, Howells was an accomplished pianist and, as we are about to discover, his most personal gifts were very often displayed in his piano pieces.

The many pieces on this first volume include Summer Idyls (1911) and Petrus Suite (1967-73). The former were composed between April and May 1911 and they formed part of a portfolio that he submitted to the Royal College of Music for his open scholarship. In spirit they seem to capture the pastoral wanderings of the composer with his friend Ivor Gurney, but in style they allude to a range of musical influences. The general theme is highly romantic and the work is characterised by echoes of Schumann and Grieg. 'Down the Hills' (No 4) also betrays Howells' love for Rachmaninov's latest piano writing.

Listen — Herbert Howells: Down the Hills (Summer Idyls)
(track 8, 0:00-0:42) © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The Petrus Suite was written between 1967 and 1973 for Hilary Macnamara, the title referring to her son Peter. The Suite underwent a number of revisions and, although seven movements remain, it was performed in a number of different orders. In syntony with his late style, the Suite shows a further pairing back to the absolute essentials of his beloved counterpoint.

Listen — Herbert Howells: Minuet Sine Nomine (Petrus Suite)
(track 18, 0:00-0:51) © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

This splendid CD is completed by six other short works that highlight Howells' imaginative prowess of description even by means of a single instrument. This is deeply attractive music, sensitively played and sumptuously recorded. Indeed, it transports the listener to days of yore and confirms Howells as a composer of true stature. Looking forward to Volume 2.

Copyright © 29 September 2020 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta







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