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Howells - Lady Audrey's Suite op.19 (SQ review)

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I. The Four Sleepy Golliwogs' Dance - Molto moderato, scherzando
II. The Little Girl and the Old Shepherd - Allegretto, espressivo, poco semplice
III. Prayer Time - Theme and 6 variations
IV. The Old Shepherd's Tale - Allegro vivace, sempre giocoso

Composed in 1915, and completed on Christmas Day of the same year, Lady Audrey's Suite was a present for Audrey, the young niece of Howell's friend Marion Scott (secretary at the RCM). Audrey was brought up in the Scott household following her mother's death. Howells was a keen writer of character pieces for children and likely used Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite as his inspiration for this piece. Below are Howells’ own programme notes for its first performance:

‘1. The Golliwogs – poor stiff things! – hated dancing; and they were so sleepy. But some horrid, spiteful magician goaded them with sharp words and a prickly fork. So they danced as best they could, bowed and ran away.
2. In the fields and woods the little girl had little else to think of other than the flowers, and the solitary old shepherd who, among his flocks close by, piped the only scraps of tune he cared for. She often pitied his loneliness.
3. On Sundays this same little girl would go into the big, quiet church and hear the solemnest things sung by the parson in a low up-and-down voice. And of these solemn words, and of coloured windows, she would think at prayer-time each evening in the week. But thoughts would come, too, of the doings of each day – of a quiet, lonely Monday; a five-finger exercise Tuesday; a tale of Saints-and-Organs Wednesday; a dancing tea-party Thursday; a fairy-tale Friday; and a Sabbath-eve Saturday.
4. Once the old shepherd told her a tale – of himself years ago, and of his friends. He was not always slow-going and lonely.

Apart from the obvious cringeworthy, political incorrectness of the title of the first movement it's an innocent piece telling the story of the life of a small girl of the 19th century. It's heavily influenced by Debussy but the initial influence of the first two movements is Vaughan Williams, too. The first movement 'Dance' skips lightly and pastorally with sleepy pizzicati and a delightful folk-inspired melody. Such a lovely opening! The 2nd movement, The Little Girl and the Old Shepherd follows in similar style to the 1st movement but is much more melancholic and highlights the girl's pity for the sad, old Shepherd. The 3rd movement, Prayer Time, is the longest here with the little girl saying her prayers whilst reviewing her week. It's in variation form with each day retelling a different event (see the composer's program notes above for more details). The Dancing tea-party segment is a particular highlight for me, here. In the finale, the Old Shepherd's Tale, the shepherd talks about his more exciting younger days, full of adventure, excitement and fun.
If you like his later 'In Gloucestershire' Quartet (check out my blog review if you want to know more about it) then I'm sure you will enjoy this charming and cleverly-written piece, written when the composer was in his early 20s.
There's only one recording of the piece currently as it was a world premiere by the Dante Quartet, on Naxos, and what a fine job they make of it. The Dante play these four fine movements with great clarity of purpose, precision and deep warmth. Melodies sing beautifully, the pastoral qualities are caught affectionately and the colour of the story is brought alive by excellent textures, enhanced by over-bright Naxos engineering which works well in this piece but slightly detracts from the 3rd Quartet). However, along with the companion In Gloucestershire Quartet on this disc this is still a very strong recommendation.

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