When Herbert Howells son died from polio at the age of 9, the composer found he could write little. He did complete a Requiem for unaccompanied choir, which set a distinctive and eclectic group of texts very much in the manner of Brahms's German Requiem. This very personal work even had marks on the manuscript made by his son. Out of this also came the idea for a larger scale work on a similar theme, but for voices and orchestra. The death of his close friend Ivor Gurney probably acted as a final stimulus and he sketched out Hymnus Paradisi. Neither work was performed or published. It was only in 1950 that he finally allowed Hymnus Paradisi to be performed; it was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral with Isobel Baillie and William Herbert as soloists. The unaccompanied Requiem would have to wait until the 1980's before it was finally allowed to be performed.
Both works are inextricably linked. Hymnus Paradisi uses a similar (but not identical) set of texts and some of its musical material is based on the Requiem. The opening Preludio uses themes which are familiar to anyone who knows the Requiem and the first choral utterance, Requiem in aeternam is almost identical to the Requiem but then Howells introduces new material. The entire work goes like this and, for someone like me who came to know and love the Requiem years before making the acquaintance of Hymnus Paradisi, the similarities and differences between the two works are unnerving. Hymnus Paradisi is, I think, a more positive work, there is slightly less emphasis on Requiem in aeternam and the finally Holy is the true light is far more positive. Whereas Requiem is quietly intense, in Hymnus Paradisi Howells glories in the large scale forces at his disposal without ever being bombastic. His style with a strong emphasis on modality, owed something to older colleagues like Vaughan Williams, but was very much his own.
Martin Brabbins conducted Howells Hymnus Paradisi and Elgar's Symphony number 1 at the Prom on 29 August with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, Miah Persson (soprano) and Andrew Kennedy (tenor).
Brabbins clearly loves Hymnus Paradisi and conducted it with care, but there was the distinct impression, with entries being smudged, that the orchestra did not have the work quite under their belts. Things settled down, however, once the chorus came in and the end results was truly magnificent. The sound of the two large choruses singing in a hushed manner was ravishing. Brabbins allowed the musical material to flow as it wanted, and with just occasional moments of really high drama such as the fourth movement (Sanctus/I will lift up mine eyes).
In the quieter moments the soloists were beautifully on form and the way Andrew Kennedy opening the fifth movement, singing the initial phrase from nothing, was entirely magical. But in the climaxes I could not help feeling that Persson and Kennedy had been engaged to sound good for the microphone rather than in the Albert Hall. Brabbins gave them no help, making no attempt to keep orchestra and chorus down, so that there were quite a few passages when the solo line was nearly inaudible. Singers such as Isobel Baillie have voices of a style which has all but disappeared, but I can't help feeling that singers exists who could combine the requirements of dramatic force with beauty of tone and line.
At the end of the day this was the choristers performance, and it was the beautifully flexible choral tone which was one of the most memorable things in the evening.
Regarding the programming of the concert, Elgar's first symphony made a fine enough companion and the result was a balanced evening. But I can't help feeling that the BBC missed a trick. Surely the Proms is one of the few organisations that could have attempted the performance of both of Howells pieces (Hymnus Paradisi and Requiem) in the same programme. Opening with the BBC Singers performing the unaccompanied Requiem before the massed forces gave Hymnus Paradisi. With the addition of an item like Take him Lord for cherishing you have the makings of a moving and fascinating programme which would enable the listener to go deeper into Howell's musical mind. An opportunity missed.
As it was, Brabbins conducted a performance of the Elgar symphony which was clearly deeply felt and profoundly considered. There were moments which were big strong and bold, the opening motto theme came over quite strikingly with a very heavy insistence in the bass and Brabbins ensured that its reappearances which quite otherwordly. The turbulent moments, such as the main theme of the first movement's Allegro, did not quite manage to be turbulent enough. There was a feeling of steadiness about the performance. The converse to this was the enormous delicacy which Brabbins brought to the details.
But the symphony is a long and structurally complex work and requires a firm hand if it is to succeed well. I could not help thinking that Brabbins loved the piece too much, that there was a tendency to delay and enjoy the magical details whilst forgetting the overall structure.
Both performances were extremely well received by the audience, many of whom were then settling in to listen to the evening's late night prom of contemporary choral music by Eric Whitacre.