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Issued for the Finzi centenary in summer 2001, Gerald Finzi is a compilation set in Decca's British Music Collection series and designed to give an overview of the composer's choral/vocal music--which it does, with mixed results. The tracks are nearly all reissues, some of them approaching vintage status but including two extremely fine accounts by Richard Hickox of the ceremonial cantata "For St Cecilia" and the orchestral song cycle "Dies Natalis" (with a youthfully impassioned Philip Langridge). Representing Finzi's songs with piano are Bryn Terfel's handsome reading of the cycle "Let Us Garlands Bring" and a classic Benjamin Luxon recording of "Earth, Air and Rain", originally issued on Argo in the mid-1970s and hard to track down in recent years. But the major choral setting "Intimations of Immortality", which you would expect to find here, isn't. And although the lesser-known "In Terra Pax" is magical and in itself a worthy substitute, the performance selected is a thin one (with decidedly weak soloists) by Winchester Cathedral Choir. The Hickox version would have been a better choice but never mind. There's quite enough on these CDS to recommend them at mid-price. --Michael White
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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.
'Dies Natalis' is another Finzi favourite. Much like Elgar's Cello Concerto, this piece has become associated with one famous recording, somewhat spoiling it for other performer's chances. But Philip Langridge is on peak form here. Again, the music contains some of Finzi's most luminous music.
The 2nd disc contains my personal favourite of Finzi's song cycles, 'Earth and Air and Rain', setting Thomas Hardy to breathtaking effect - a real rollercoaster ride. Benjamin Luxon is not my first choice (that would be Stephen Varcoe on Hyperion), but he's a superb second. He's followed by the boom of Bryn Terfel in 'Let Us Garlands Bring' and the unique 'Fear no more the heat 'o the sun', which seems to me a distillation of so many things that we only half glimpse in life.
On the whole, this collection presents all the best of Finzi's visionary music - though the short clip of the 'Amen' rather cheats the patient listener into feelings of guilt!