The Trinity Choir director reveals his deep connection to the music of Herbert Howells.

Howells still seems a bit of a rarity on disc. How did you first encounter him?

I sang his church music from when I was nine at Winchester Cathedral where I was a choirboy for four and a half years. As I sang Tallis and Byrd, I sang Howells, so it’s very much a part of my existence, if you like.

Was it love at first hearing for you?

Yes, yes, it was. When we sang Howells’ Collegium Regale in Winchester Cathedral as choristers, and we came to that Gloria, it was the thing you really looked forward to singing on a Saturday Evensong in a cathedral with lots of people there. You just went for it and let it soar. We loved it. It’s sort of singers’ music, and for young boys, it was the stuff we enjoyed most. In a curious way, I didn’t love singing Tallis and Byrd as much as a nine-year-old as I did singing Howells. Tallis and Byrd seemed quite tricky and, looking back, not so tuneful and exciting. Whereas Howells just sort of blew you away with these great settings of the canticles. With the organ playing, your voice just flew, because Howells loved writing for the top lines of the boys’ voices in those cathedrals.

Stephen Layton, photo © Keith Saunders

He has a reputation for being – ‘difficult’ is the wrong word – maybe a little elusive or slightly mystical. Is that at all fair?

I think it is fair. He’s not a composer whose music is going to appeal to everyone. There’s something peculiarly English about Howells. Something imbued within the stones, the architecture and the buildings of English cathedrals. And it’s something that the singers that perform it in those buildings clearly love doing. It’s quite private, in a way. It’s not music for such public consumption, if you know what I mean. It’s sort of a consenting music for those who enjoy it. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely exclusive, because hopefully by performing it and recording it, more and more people hear it and begin to enjoy it. But there’s a certain difficulty about it, even a certain awkwardness in some of the bigger pieces.

He’s maybe not the greatest composer to have ever walked this planet, but I think for people like myself who have been brought up in this tradition of cathedral music, he represents a great white hope. His musical voice was synonymous with these buildings and this architecture that was conceived 400 years ago, and he gave that architecture a new meaning through his music. So when I listen to Collegium Regale, I see the vaulting in King’s College Chapel and the whole building before me. I feel Howells has conjured that with his music, and that speaks to me. 

You conduct many choirs all over the world, but you’re particularly associated with a couple: Trinity College and Polyphony. Do you have an ideal sound for a choir, and does it differ with different forces?

That’s a very good question. I work with anybody who wants to work with me and I make a sound them and with the music. But, I think it’s still the case that in my mind, I have a sound. I’m not sure why that is, I’m not sure exactly where it’s come from or why, but I do have a sound, and I guess I try to achieve it in a positive way.

It’s so hard to talk about sound, because in the end, we just need to listen. But I am very conscious that I have an idea in my mind of what it should be like. Maybe it’s do with my choir boy days, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to recreate the sound of choir boys, far from it. I’m not. I’m trying to create all sorts of rich choral textures that many choir boys couldn’t inhabit with the power of their voices. But I think that spending all those years in a cathedral as a boy, and hearing all that music, I built a sort of sound picture.

If you were to try and pinpoint your absolute priorities, what are your ideals for a choral sound?

Priority one is that the sound is created by the emotion that’s unleashed within the text. But technically this is also done by the way the text is manipulated in simple terms of consonants and vowels and colours. I’m very aware of when I get a vowel or a colour unified, which I will usually do by a concept and getting people to think about the same image. More than anything else, that image technically binds the sound together.

There’s also a technical concept behind that. It may be certain sort of vowel sounds on the same frequency will make what I call something that’s silver. I guess that’s how I would try and describe the sound that I want most of the time. It’s very silver. If it’s not as good as silver than it’s not worth having. There are other hues that come after that, which are gold and honey like, but it’s all to do with the celestial and all of those other slightly OTT concepts. You could say that the sound is spinning, or that it’s ringing, but critically everybody is batting in the same way – going down the same channel ­– in the way they produce the sound. That doesn’t mean we’re trying to get everybody to do crazy blend things, which are unsuitable for their voices. But it does mean that we’re all singing the same vowel.

Trinity Choir is university based, so presumably the singer turnover is high. Does that self-renewal keep everything fresh and vibrant, or is it a frustration?

It’s a double-edged sword. At the end of every tour, I’m very sad, because our tours come in the summer when college is finished. This summer it ended in Hobart after 13 concerts on the road in Australia and Hong Kong, and it was very sad. I then started again in October with 18 new people out of 30. But it’s now November and I’m feeling positive. They’re doing really well and we’re ready to record the B Minor Mass in January. So we’re getting there. We’ve got a concert at Christmas and then we’re on the road, developing it. But it’s a merry-go-round of great ups and great downs. It’s never going to be any different, but I probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

Stephen Layton, photo © Keith Saunders

A new B Minor Mass is exciting. Who are you recording it with?

With the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. And it’s with four soloists, two of whom were my former choir members: Katie Watson and Gwilym Bowen. Katie sang on our Christmas Oratorio recording. The other two people are more of my generation and are at the top of their game: Iestyn Davies, who is the greatest countertenor in the world today, and Neil Davis, one of the finest bass baritones. It’s a lovely bringing together. We’re going to be performing it in London on December 22 and then in Cambridge in early January, and then we spend a week recording. 

After that, the next choir tour this year is going to Canada. There are all sorts of recording plans. We’ve got some Sir Charles Villiers Stanford that’s in the bag already, again with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford was former director of music at Trinity, so there’s a strong link there. That’s following on from the Howells, if you like, with the great English choral tradition. We’re probably going to record more Stanford because he’s a very Cambridge man, and I think he’s a very serious voice in the Anglican tradition, of which we are the great inheritors. That is why we’ve recorded Howells and Tallis and Byrd – the great giants of the whole thing.

Stephen Layton’s two recordings of Howells are available on Hyperion, as is his recording with Trinity Choir of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and his latest Christmas album, Yulefest! Collegium Regale is Limelight Magazine‘s Recording of the Year 2016