Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. In the dark days of World War II, Cambridge was a bleak place; emptied of students and the famous windows of King’s College Chapel put in storage. Attempts were made to keep up appearances. Services in college chapels were more or less maintained, despite a dearth of adult male singers and college organists being called up. A middle-aged Herbert Howells was called upon to deputise at St. John’s College. Having weathered the death of his young son from meningitis and finding his style of music increasingly unfashionable, Howells found solace in university life.
Amongst the supportive colleagues he found at Cambridge was the Dean of King’s, Eric Milner-White. He suggested that Howells should write some settings of the canticles for the college chapel. Taking up the challenge reinvigorated Howells’s composing career and gave Anglicans some of their most beloved 20th-century music. Howells eventually completed his music for King’s, setting all three choral services: Matins, Holy Communion and Evensong under the college’s Latin name.
One of the many advantages of this new recording is having all three services on the one disc. The evening canticles have been recorded countless times, but the other two services are also full of wonderful things, not least the cataclysmic end of the Te Deum. Rarely have the words “never let me be confounded” carried such emotional power. Once heard, Howells’ setting will never be forgotten.
In recording this music at Coventry Cathedral, Stephen Layton has invested Howells’ music with a grandeur, a space and a freedom that celebrate not only the original elements of its creation (King’s chapel and the Anglican liturgy) but also its universal qualities – qualities of beauty and solace that extend beyond these particular inspirations.
These superb performances have the Trinity Choir’s trademark blend of passion and technique, put at the service of the music’s various moods; whether it be Mary’s quiet praise in the Magnificat, the tenor’s beautiful plaint in the Nunc Dimittis or the ebullience of the Jubilate and Gloria. Climaxes are invariably thrilling (not only in the Te Deum, but the famous “Glory be” of the evening canticles), texts are sensitively declaimed, dynamics scrupulously observed and singers sensitively accompanied. An exciting account of the organ Rhapsody celebrates the appropriate choice of organ. This disc is too good not to have!