• Herbert Howells
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 in C, Op. 39 (1925)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • 3(pic)3(ca)32/4231/timp.perc/str
  • 28 min

Programme Note

Herbert Howells Piano Concerto no.2 in C op.39

Howells's second Piano Concerto was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and premiered at the Queen's Hall, London on 27 April 1925. The performance was conducted by Malcolm Sargent, making his debut with the Society, and the pianist was the famous Bach interpreter, Harold Samuel.

Howells was very much a rising star at this time amongst young British composers. His chamber music, particularly the outstanding Piano Quartet and the Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet and strings, had brought him to the attention of the musical public, and the orchestral and instrumental music, songs and choral works which flowed from him showed a singular voice and a precocious talent.

It was therefore with some sense of anticipation that the audience gathered for the premiere of this concerto. At the end, though, the critic Robert Lorenz stood up and shouted 'Thank God that's over'. This caused a hush in the hall before a general redoubling of applause in Howells's favour. But the damage was done. Ever sensitive to criticism, Howells immediately withdrew the work. He later blamed hostility in the hall that night on a clique supporting Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), angry that Howells had been commissioned instead of E.J.Moeran.

Many column inches were devoted to this cause célèbre and most were hostile to Howells. Almost alone among them was the critic for the Musical Times who wrote that 'probably most people present were interested in hearing a somewhat experimental work well-performed'. But this also explains much of the public's attitude to the work at the time. It was modern and felt experimental.

Howells himself explained that he wanted to experiment with form. In the Music Teacher in 1923 he wrote: 'What always matters to a modern is to express a complex mood. Now for that, sonata form is not always suitable; or the sonata form as hitherto accepted.' In this concerto, Howells's experiment was to use a single sonata form structure to define the whole work. Thus the exposition was the first movement, the development became the slow movement and the modified recapitulation was the last movement to which he added 'a long, retrospective coda'. The implication of this scheme is that the themes presented in the first movement are therefore the principal themes of the whole work. This places a considerable burden on their character given the amount of repetition they have during the course of a half-hour work.

In fact, Howells set out to give the concerto an upbeat feeling with 'deliberate tunes all the way' and 'attempting to get to the point as quickly as maybe'. It is possible that the eight-note first theme is too slight for its purpose. It is also true that Howells's self-confessed love of pathos in music meant that whenever he tried to write 'jolly' music it had something of a feeling of posturing about it, and it was only when he was in 'slow movement' or reflective mode that his true colours became apparent.

One of the fascinating things about this Concerto is seeing just how far Howells had travelled, stylistically, since his first Piano Concerto of 1914. Many have criticised Howells for being stuck in an idiomatic rut. They only know his later mature style, principally through his well-known choral music, and are ignorant of his earlier music. This grew through the main influences of the time - Brahms, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Elgar to the point where he had developed a unique voice recognisable almost instantly.

The second Piano Concerto is a major landmark on this road to his mature style and flawed though it may be, it shows his courage in innovation, his sense of drama and colour in his use of the orchestra and his desire to write a work which grabbed attention. It is a pity that its reception and the composer's sensitivity to criticism gave him a crisis of confidence which took a long time to heal - and in some senses never did. The two recordings of this work available at the current time give us a real opportunity to reassess this Concerto for ourselves away from the pressures and politics of 1925.

Lichfield December 2000

2) CHAN9874 Howard Shelley, BBCSO dir. Richard Hickox