TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 September 2011
Gerald Finzi wrote some large-scale works, including "Intimations of Immortality" and the Cello Concerto, but he is surely best-known for his fine songs, many of them settings of Thomas Hardy. Finzi was a meticulous composer, many of whose works evolved over many years - even decades. This Naxos recording includes two well-known sets of songs, and a world premiere recording.
The premiere is "By Footpath and Stile", only Finzi's second opus, for string quartet and baritone. The idea of using a string quartet instead of the traditional piano was no doubt suggested by Vaughan Williams' "On Wenlock Edge". There are six songs - all settings of Thomas Hardy. The mood of the poems varies from melancholy, through regret and resignation to gentle satire - all reflected beautifully in Finzi's music. All but one of the texts touches in one way or another upon death, but the abiding sentiment is one of resignation: death is the way of things, and should be stoically accepted. By using the string quartet, Finzi breathes intimacy into the poems, making them characteristically his, while also underscoring Hardy's original meaning.
"Earth and Air and Rain" is a varied collection of songs written during the comaratively short period 1928-32, thus ensuring stylistic cohesion. Here Finzi is at his most inventive and diverse of mood, ranging from the wistful ("Lizbie Browne") to the buoyant ("When I set out for Lyonesse") to the regretful ("So I have fared") to the dramatic ("The Clock of the Years") to the downright raucous ("Rollicum-Rorum"). Once again, the gentle, resigned pessimism - or meliorism, as Hardy would have preferred to call it - of the texts is matched perfectly by the sensitivity of Finzi's settings.
The final set, "To a Poet", contains six songs collected by Finzi's family, with the help of Howard Ferguson, after the composer's death. It is not, therefore, a song "cycle" in the true sense of the term - but then, few of Finzi's collections were. In these songs Finzi sets a range of poets (his private literature library was considerable), including Thomas Traherne (whose work he had mined for "Dies Natalis"), Walter de la Mare, and lesser lights such as Sir William Jones. There is a particularly dramatic setting of George Barker's "Ode on the Rejection of St. Cecilia", while James Elroy Flecker's "To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence" might have been written for Finzi. The poem tells of how a poet's work can reach out to the hearts of those the poet can never personally know, and touch them as surely as if the poet himself had been there. And this is what Finzi endeavoured to do in his music - to introduce us to these texts afresh so that we, too, can be touched by long-dead artists we never knew, but who had something very definite to say to their own generation - and, through their art, to ours. What a joy that we can come to these texts afresh through Finzi's music.
The baritone Roderick Williams has a mellow tone that is admirably suited to Finzi's brand of gentle lyricism, while the Sacconi Quartet play with feeling in "By Footpath and Stile", and Iain Burnside, with his specialism in the English repertoire, is an excellent choice as accompanist in the remaining works.