American Record Guide

Much like Russian nationalism two decades earlier and American nationalism two decades later, English nationalism at the dawn of the 20th Century involved a breaking away from German models and an embrace of native songs, sounds, and dialects. English efforts, though, developed during a difficult transition in Western music. They quickly fell behind modernist whirlwinds, and by the end of World War II they were dismissed as quaint. While Russian and American nationalists are still towering figures in the repertoire, English nationalists remain an afterthought from a busy period, living on only in vocal music, band music, and chamber music.

Nevertheless, some leading British musicians maintain that English nationalism still has a place on contemporary concert programs. On this 2007 release, originally recorded in 1992, clarinetist Michael Collins, pianist Andrew West, and the Lyric Quartet present three early chamber works of Herbert Howells (1892-1983). A favorite pupil of the German trained Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music in London, Howells was considered the most promising talent of the British generation of composers that came of age during World War I. Like George Butterworth and Gerald Finzi, Howells skillfully balanced traditional form with English pastoralism and folk song; and like Gordon Jacob, he admired English Renaissance and baroque music. His teacher, though, had the greatest influence; no matter the source of his materials, Howells infused his works with warm romantic lyricism.

The program begins with the highly atmospheric Piano Quartet in A minor , Op. 21 (1916), a full-length three-movement work that weaves several English folk melodies into its formal structure and bears a dedication to a specific place in the English countryside. The Phantasy Quartet , Op. 25 (1917) refers to the old Elizabethan single movement instrumental piece with several contrasting sections, but after all the energetic dances it dies away with a solemn Piu Lento. The concluding Rhapsodic Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, Op. 31 (1919) is another single-movement work that ends with a slow meditation. It is unified not by a grand architectural scheme, but by only two ideas: an energetic motive in the strings and a beautiful melody in the clarinet.

Collins, West, and the Lyric Quartet give thoroughly professional and profoundly moving performances that simmer with romantic angst, succumb completely to moments of intense contemplation, and have lively rhythmic episodes and the occasional tangy dissonance.

The Quartet is a superb team that balances classical formality with folk playing, and West has unrivalled touch and color, especially when he begins the kind of quiet passage that words cannot express. Collins achieves a British timbre that is unusually rich and clear, matching the dark hue of the strings, phrasing with great color and sincerity, and making the fade-out in the closing measures of the Clarinet Quintet poignant and unforgettable.