by Walter Simmons
FINZI: Intimations of Immortality. Ian Partridge, tenor; Guildford Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. LYRITA SRCS 75
FINZI: A Severn Rhapsody. Introit. Nocturne (New Year Music). Prelude. Three Soliloquies. Romance. The Fall of the Leaf. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. LYRITA SRCS 84
FINZI: Farewell to Arms. Two Milton Sonnets. Let Us Garlands Bring. In Terra Pax. Ian Partridge, tenor (Farewell; Milton); John Carol Case, baritone (Garlands); Jane Manning, soprano and John Noble, baritone (Terra Pax); John Alldis Choir (Terra Pax); New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. LYRITA SRCS 93
FINZI: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. LYRITA SRCS 112
This review heralds the increased accessibility in the United States of four magnificent recordings of music by Gerald Finzi, all originally released in England on Lyrita during the late 1970s. The performance of Intimations of Immortality had been licensed at one time to Musical Heritage Society, and was available on MHS 3598; the disc of short orchestral works conducted by Boult had been issued on the defunct HNH label (4077). It is indeed fortunate to have these discs available to American collectors, so many of whom seemed to discover this extraordinary composer just as the records were dropping out of circulation. The original Lyrita pressings are superb—better than the erstwhile MHS and HNH alternatives.
If one were to try to specify the “essential” Gerald Finzi on records, these four discs would probably comprise the best selection. A choice is difficult, but one can reasonably claim Intimations of Immortality as perhaps the composer’s most fully realized major work, reflecting on a large scale both the majestic nobility and breadth and the sensitivity to poetic meaning so characteristic of Finzi. It is interesting to reflect on the similarities between this work and The Dream of Gerontius, to which it is deeply indebted musically, and, in many ways, is a worthy sequel. Though completed a full half-century after Elgar’s oratorio, there is virtually nothing in the later work that would be stylistically inappropriate in the earlier one. (To quote Finzi scholar Diana McVeagh, describing another piece: “This music is itself a symbol, and by being so ‘out of time’ becomes timeless.”) Is it a coincidence that, while Elgar’s work deals with the journey of a soul from life to after-life, Finzi’s contemplates the passage from pre-life into life?
Representing another side of.Finzi’s art is the disc containing seven short orchestral pieces, conducted by the late Sir Adrian Boult. While some may find the repeated expressions of restrained, elegiac lyricism too much for one sitting, almost every piece is a gem on its own terms (my favorites are the Introit, Romance, and The Fall of the Leaf). Perfect for late-night listening, this disc is a must for every Finzi lover.
SRCS 93 presents four works that demonstrate Finzi’s mastery of poetic setting on a smaller scale—which many would probably assert is Finzi’s greatest gift of all. Here he undertakes, respectively, five Shakespeare settings (dedicated to Vaughan Williams on his 70th birthday), two of Milton, poems by Ralph Knevet and George Peele (16th-17th centuries), and a 20th-century Christmas poem by Robert Bridges. These four works depict various aspects of Finzi’s undeniably narrow stylistic range, from the lighter, almost folk-like tunes in the Shakespeare settings (listen once to “It was a lover and his lass” and you will never forget it), through the darker, more probing Milton settings, through the more outgoing, straightforwardly descriptive In Terra Pax, to Farewell to Arms, with its Bach-arioso-like melody, Finzi’s most identifiable trademark. As always, the taste is impeccable, the tremendous intelligence never failing, the music never uninteresting.
The fourth disc contains Finzi’s Cello Concerto, his last major work. In it he reached beyond the perimeter within which he was usually content to remain. Though not his only major abstract work, it is clearly his most ambitious. Here he sought not only to master the challenge of a large formal structure, but also, through it, to express a more complex, varied range of emotions than was usual for him. This undertaking was no doubt influenced by an awareness that the Cello Concerto was to be one of his final works. Again Elgar comes to mind—in this case, his valedictory cello concerto—as an obvious point of comparison. While Finzi’s overall stylistic debt to Elgar is beyond dispute, his concerto is an estimable work in its own right. Elgar’s is clearly a retrospective work, by a composer of weakened creativity—its strengths are best appreciated when viewed with an indulgent critical eye. Finzi’s concerto, written by a man still in his prime, is a clearer, more balanced structure, at times revealing an aggressive, defiant spirit. However, 41 minutes is a long time for a composer like Finzi to sustain interest; while the second movement—familiar territory for him—is lovely, the outer movements show a degree of strain and their energy does flag noticeably. Nevertheless, it is a worthy contribution among cello concertos, and one that provides pleasant respite from the standard array of empty virtuoso vehicles. It is, ironically, noteworthy that a celebrated soloist like Yo-Yo Ma has taken the initiative of introducing the public to an unusual work like this, and I look forward to his continued interest in this and other works that can enrich the stagnant concerto repertoire. I am often asked how it is that conductors and soloists who claim to be concerned with broadening their audiences and rejuvenating the repertoire can pass over the music of composers like Finzi, in favor of some obviously incoherent sham perpetrated by a composer who has managed to elbow himself momentarily into the limelight, or a stale warhorse that has long ago lost whatever luster it may have had. I recently had the occasion to speak with Yo-Yo Ma, and asked him whether he had many opportunities to perform the Finzi concerto, which he plays beautifully on this recording. He replied that he has tried repeatedly to interest conductors in the work. However, he has discovered that since they are unfamiliar with Finzi’s music, they simply dismiss it on the assumption that it couldn’t be worth the effort to learn. (I find that amateur music aficionados are invariably incredulous to learn that, in many cases, their sophistication in matters of repertoire exceeds that of quite a few celebrated artists.)
The performances on all four of these records are superb, as is the sound quality throughout. Among the many fine musicians represented, the extraordinary artistry of tenor Ian Partridge warrants special mention. Great praise also goes to Lyrita, a company whose high standards in every aspect of production set an example for the industry. It is through recordings like these that music lovers around the world have begun to discover some of the treasures from the past hundred years of English music.