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CD review: The late Beth Newdome in a recording of three Herbert Howells violin sonatas

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UPDATE Feb. 13: Former Atlanta Symphony violinist Beth Newdome passed away this morning at a hospice center in Tallahassee. A memorial service is planned for next weekend in her hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. She will be missed. — Pierre

Herbert Howells is roaring back to life. Well, almost roaring. Born in 1892, the English composer is known for his dignified Anglican cathedral music, a collection of beautifully etched choral and organ works inspired by English music from the 16th and 17th centuries, with its modal harmonies and mild, long-limbed melodies.

He is perhaps best represented by “Hymnus Paradisi,” a radiant lament for his 9-year-old son, who had died of meningitis. Yet, amusingly, the British often tended to lump everything else — his chamber and orchestral music — together with other nostalgic English pastoral types and call it all “cow pat music.” As the New Grove Dictionary put it a generation ago, Howells, who died in 1983, “is more widely respected than performed.”

 

Violinist Beth Newdome and pianist Brent Runnels, and an unnamed page turner, at the recording session in 2006. Photo courtesy of Brent Runnels

 

That impression is starting to change, and, no surprise, the new energy is coming from American groups. There are newer recordings of Howells’ early orchestral works; small gems prized by chamber musicians are earning a re-evaluation. A superb example comes from two musicians with deep Atlanta connections. Violinist Beth Newdome and pianist Brent Runnels have recorded Howells’ three sonatas for violin and piano, written early in his career between 1917 and 1923. (The label is Mark Records.)

As Atlanta Symphony associate concertmaster, Newdome had prominent solo parts with the orchestra and was active with the Georgian Chamber Players. In 2002, after a dozen years with the ASO, she departed to teach at Florida State University, where these Howells sonatas were recorded. With Runnels, she’s in the Inman Piano Trio. A versatile musician, Runnels has a doctorate from the Manhattan School of Music and is a classical and jazz pianist, teacher, singer and concert organizer.

Howells’ first was published as Sonata No. 1 in E Major, Op. 18. The second, in E-flat Major, is still in manuscript form, never published. Both are muscular, a little stiff and Germanic in a Brahmsian way. We hear Howells working through late-19th-century Romantic models, polishing his craft and searching for his own voice. They’re comfort food in the best sense: tasty, high in calories and familiar, even on first listen.

The third, titled Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 38 and written in 1923, is an undervalued masterpiece, of shifting moods and clashing meters. The pizzicato-driven middle movement is wildly creative, a little jazzy (like Ravel) and almost pointillistic in a painterly way.

According to Runnels, the U.K. Howells Trust will soon publish the Second Sonata. Also noteworthy: the Newdome-Runnels recording is only the second ever of all three sonatas, and it’s the first to play all the music complete; the other recording (on Hyperion), takes a cut in the Third Sonata. So good playing from this newer disk, and good scholarship.

Newdome’s playing throughout is assertive, emotional and disciplined. She brings out the vocal quality to Howells’ melodies, as songs without words, and draws a sweet tone from her violin. Perhaps in deference to this utterly English composer, the personal fantasy is kept to a minimum. It’s very proper playing. She partners ideally with Runnels, who brings a range of colors and moods to the piano part, which sometimes feels like shifting weather patterns as a backdrop to the down-to-earth violin line.

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