Gerald Finzi lived from 1901 - 1956. Surely no other composer sounds so British. He distilled the influences of Elgar and Vaughan Williams into an instantly recognisable style. His music sounds even more traditionally British because of the nostalgia that brims over from it. It is the music of the end of things, of autumn, of the evening of the day, and the evening of life. Death had been a frequent visitor to Finzi's early life. He lost his father and then his three brothers in quick succession. The shadow of death returned to him in his 50th year in the form of Hodgkin's Disease, which he died from five years later. However, this is the music of fond farewells. Finzi is no Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light.
And so to the CDs -
In First work 'In Terra Pax' Finzi bookends the shepherds worshipping the baby Jesus, from Luke's gospel, with verses of Robert Bridges who stands back, a loner on a glorious day, bathing in a joy of a celebratory crowd he will never be part of. Finzi avoids all the usually trapping of Christmas music and expresses the work in his classic voice. A Christmas work that doesn't sound like a carol. Bravo! The performance is excellent.
Second work Dies Natalis `The day of Birth' is a 25 minute song cycle for tenor and string orchestra expressing the wonder of being born. It is often rated as Finzi's finest piece. This performance is decent enough, but it is too in thrall to Finzi's autumnal muse and too often sounds like music for the end of life, not it's beginning. If this piece is to really speak its needs frequent injections of excitement and wonder to balance its nostalgia. I was present at just such a performance at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham a few years ago, and the effect was to bring a real radiance to it. Here there are too many lengthening shadows, and too little new life, though the tenor Philip Langridge does stir himself during `The Rapture'.
`St Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians and church music. `For St Cecilia' is a real celebratory anthem given a performance that does it proud.
The first CD finishes with the Amen from another considerable work .`Lo, the full, final Sacrifice'. It is very nice, but why didn't Decca put the full 15 minutes of the piece on the disc. There is enough room. It feels like we are being given a `taster' for another CD.
The second disc starts with Finzi's orchestra and choir setting of the Magnificat which is given a wonderful performance. My thought is - perhaps this is the composer's real masterpiece - as I hear how Finzi takes us through a wide range of moods in its 10 minute length.
The Romance for String Orchestra is the only instrumental work on the disc. It is clear that even when Finzi left voices out of his music he continued to write songs - songs without words. A pleasant but not a great little work
The song cycle 'Earth and Air and Rain' presents a challenge to the composer. Has he got what it takes to express the Thomas Hardy's frequently boisterous poetry. Not Finzi's usual territory. He borrows the style of Vaughan Williams early song cycle `Songs of Travel', with the same robust piano. He can't quite find it within himself to give voice to the earthy delights of `Lizbie Browne', but successfully negotiates the other nine songs.
There are similar challenges in the second song cycle here, the last work in the 2CD set. `Let us Garlands Bring', five settings of Shakespeare. He mines the music of Vaughan Williams again, but can't quite match the gleeful abandon of that composer's `The Vagabond', and settles for well fed jollity instead, which makes for an enjoyable, if a little tame, romp through this selection of the Bard's foibles.
To sum up. This is an enjoyable set with several excellent performances, and several others that are highly enjoyable. It would make a good introduction to Finzi's vocal works. Finzi's music may often be the music of autumn, but as the selection here demonstrates, he was a composer who could give voice to all seasons.