on 20 December 2011
Gerald Finzi lived from 1901 to 1956 and was one of the most distinctive English composers of his generation. He belongs in the English Pastoral tradition, exemplified by Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and EJ Moeran, rather than the modern school, associated with Walton, Tippett and Britten. During his lifetime his music was - with a few exceptions - not widely known or appreciated. He composed very slowly, often taking years, and sometime a decade, over a piece. He was dissatisfied with much that he wrote and often withdrew a work after a first performance, sometimes rewriting, and sometimes abandoning the project, in whole or in part.
Finzi did produce several masterpieces, among them the cantata for high voice and strings 'Dies Natalis', a clarinet concerto and a cello concerto. He published single movements of what were intended to be concertos for piano [Eclogue] and violin [Introit], several short orchestral works, often just for strings, and a quantity of choral music. History will probably judge Finzi mainly by his songs for voice and piano, of which around 70 survive. These were published in nine sets, several apearing posthumously edited by his friend and musical executor, Howard Ferguson. Thomas Hardy was Finzi's favourite poet, and the majority of his songs, including these three cycles, have words by the Dorset poet.
Most of Finzi's songs were written for the baritone voice, and these are included on 2 Naxos CDs performed by Roderick Williams. This third CD contains the songs for tenor voice, sung by John Mark Ainsley: Iain Burnside is the pianist throughout. Competition in the posthumously published set 'Oh fair to see' comes from Ian Partridge, with pianist Clifford Benson, in a Hyperion - now Helios - mixed recital. In the other two sets, the obvious comparison is with Neil Jenkins in 'A Young Man's Exhortation' and Robert Tear in 'Till Earth Outwears'. These come from pioneering Lyrita recordings with Howard Ferguson at the piano, coupled with three baritone cycles sung by John Carol Case, all now available on a Double CD. I think it could be argued that the 25-year old Neil Jenkins is still slightly to be preferred in the Op. 14 songs: but in Op. 19a, I prefer Ainsley to Tear. All three Naxos CDs deserve to be in any collection of English Song, and the Lyrita set is also worth having, even if it is now in some respects surpassed by these more recent Naxos offerings.
Added in Edit: There is a recent recording of these three cycles that I had overlooked by James Gilchrist with Anna Tilbrook at the piano. I have not yet heard it; but it has been well reviewed, and I have it on order. Thus there is a wider choice than the above review suggests, and prospective purchasers may wish to take that into account.
Further Edit: I have now heard and reviewed the Gilchrist CD: though recommendable, I slightly prefer Ainsley's.
This Naxos CD includes three Finzi song sets for tenor: "A Young Man's Exhortation", "Till Earth Outwears", and "Oh Fair to See", the latter two collected posthumously by Finzi's family, with the help of Irish composer and musicologist Howard Ferguson.
Most of Finzi's songs were written individually over many years and later collected into sets, perhaps with some common theme in view; but "A Young Man's Exhortation" (1926-29) was conceived as a genuine song cycle. There are ten songs - all to Hardy texts - divided equally into two parts. The first deals with youth and love, while the second glances wistfully back to youth from the alp of old age. No amount of comment can do justice to Finzi's masterly treatment of the texts. The prevailing mood is one of gentle lyricism, but Finzi's fertile mind treats it in any number of ways, so that our interest never wanes. His use of the piano is, at times, almost visual, as in "The Comet at Yell'ham" where, in its highest register, it paints the vastness of the universe, while the tenor reflects on the brevity of human life. A rousing march brings light relief to the cycle in "Budmouth Dears" which depicts smart soldiers in all their finery eyeing up the girls along the promenade. The title song reaches a truly heart-rending moment in the words "passing preciousness of dreams" (the pinnacle of the whole work for me), while "The Sigh", concerning an old man who sits contemplating why his late wife sighed at their first meeting decades ago, is simply exquisite.
"Till Earth Outwears", again to texts by Hardy, draws together seven songs from various points in Finzi's career, maintaining the gently wistful mood of the previous set. In "I look into my glass", for example, the poet bemoans the fact that physical aging does not absolve him from feeling the heartache felt in youth. Given that the composer was only in his mid-thirties when he wrote this setting, it is remarkable how accurately he captures the older man's mood and experience. In the final song, "Life Laughs Onward", the pain of regret for things that are past is tempered by the knowledge that life goes on unabated, blissfully unaware of what went before. The placing of this nunmber as a conclusion to the set was not Finzi's choice, of course, but he would surely have approved.
The other posthumous collection on the disc, "Oh Fair to See", includes several settings of other poets, as well as one by Hardy - Christina Rossetti, Edward Shanks, Ivor Gurney, Blunden and Bridges. The general theme is the transience of youth and beauty. In "I say I'll seek her side" (Hardy), for instance, the poet procrastinates over his waiting lover, while time moves inexorably onward, while in "Oh fair to see" (Rossetti) the time of autumn fruitfulness succeeds to the time of April blossom. "Only the wanderer" (Gurney) is an exquisite miniature, which may be usefully compared with Gurney's own setting of the same poem (on the Hyperion label, for instance). Here the poet, floundering in the mud of Flanders, yearns for his beloved Gloucestershire home.
All these song sets have been recorded previously, but this disc certainly does them proud. The tenor, John Mark Ainsley, captures the subtleties in text and music admirably, and his accompanist, Iain Burnside, is excellent.