I have been long acquainted with the choral and organ music of the English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983), but this is the first orchestral disc I have heard. The First Piano Concerto was written when Howells was in his early 20s and studying at the Royal College of Music. It displays a very mature and fluent style, and although it was obviously influenced by Rachmaninov, Debussy, Brahms and others, the overall impression given is one of individuality - surely a sign of a great master. The first movement lays the foundations for the rest of the work, and for someone so used to Howells' later, more profound compositions it is a breath of fresh air. The second movement is really the soul of the piece and is quite simply one of the most captivatingly beautiful movements in musical history - I would buy this disc for the second movement alone. The third movement is linked to the second and is a sprightly section, which ends this fine concerto with great skill (the last bars completed excellently by John Rutter). The piece shows Howells' skill as an orchestrator, even at this stage, and it is a shame so many of his orchestral pieces were forgotten for so long.
The Second Concerto is a much tauter and tenser piece which became famous through Robert Lorenz, the critic, storming out after the first performance. Howells was deeply and visibly cut to the heart, and withdrew the piece immediately. He did not compose anything of real stature after this incident for nearly a decade (apart fom Lambert's Clavichord), turning his attention to miniatures and revision of earlier music. Indeed, the piece does show Howells in a much more advanced and style than the First Concerto, and is a drier and more concise piece, being slightly less 'English' than the First Concerto, The tensile first and last movements frame a melancholic second movement of truly lush music.
Penguinski is a miniature ballet and was written in the 1930's for a visit to the RCM by the Prince of Wales. It is a slight but witty work, showing Howells at his most entertaining. In fact, I could hardly believe this was the same man who penned such intense masterpieces as Hymnus Paradisi, and the Gloucester, Collegium Regale and St. Paul's Services. There are very obvious ideas plagiarised from Stravinsky, especially the orchestral piano part, but this adds to the charm of the piece.
Each piece is played with skill and sensitivity by the BBCSO under a champion of English music, Richard Hickox, and the solo piano parts are given a colourful and highly expressive reading by that still underrated but exceptional pianist Howard Shelley. There are a few moments when the timing of orchestral entries with the piano part are not exactly spot on, but these moments are rare and the overall impression given is one of sensitivity, musicianship, and the ability to enjoy the astonishingly magnificent music which is heard on this disc. I would recommend it very highly indeed.