FINZI : Dies Natalis. Two Milton Sonnets. Farewell to Arms. When I Set Out for Lyonnesse. Let Us Garlands Bring. Interlude for Oboe and Strings

FINZI  Dies Natali. Two Milton Sonnets. Farewell to Arms. When I Set Out for Lyonnesse. Let Us Garlands Bring. Interlude for Oboe and Strings –  Vernon Handley, cond; Rebecca Evans (mez); Toby Spence (ten); Michael George (bbar); Nicholas Daniel (ob); Bournemouth SO – CONIFER 75605 51285 2 (74:58 &)

Here is a generous offering of some of Finzi’s finest vocal music, surrounding a lesser-known instrumental masterpiece, all in meticulously tasteful and sympathetic performances. Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) was an Englishman of independent means and broad cultivation, who carved out a modest niche for himself as a composer of vocal settings of English poetry and of warmly lyrical if somewhat elegiac instrumental miniatures. His musical language was a direct outgrowth of the poignant yet noble lyricism of Elgar, and conveys an intimate, personal quality, seeming far removed from the aggressive egotism of the cosmopolitan musical landscape. Accusations of derivativeness, narrowness of scope, and conservatism may be justified, but somehow matter not at all. Indeed, one encounters long stretches without even a trace of chromaticism to ripple its placidly diatonic waters, yet even then, Finzi’s personal voice is identifiable after just a few notes.

One of the felicities of this disc is the alternation among three singers of different vocal ranges, which, in view of the music’s admittedly narrow expressive focus, reduces the danger of monotony. Also remarkable is the opportunity to enjoy what is perhaps Finzi’s finest large-scale solo-vocal work in performance by a soprano. Dies Natalis comprises a haunting group of settings taken from works by the obscure seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, which capture the innocent wonder of a child’s view of the world. Though today it is usually sung by a tenor, it was originally introduced in 1940 by Elsie Suddaby. Mezzo Rebecca Evans lends a slightly maternal quality to her reading. (Tenor John Mark Ainsley also offers an excellent rendition on Hyperion CDA66876, another splendid recent all-Finzi disc [see Fanfare 21:1])

The two-part Farewell to Arms, to 16th – and 17th-century antiwar texts by Ralph Knevet and George Peele is another masterpiece, of which the “Aria” features a melodic line that represents the quintessence of Finzi. The two Milton sonnets indicate a bit more of a musical stretch, but the effort is quite successful. The group of Shakespeare settings, Let Us Garlands Bring, is one of the composer’s most popular cycles, with a bit more variety of mood than is his norm. Once heard, neither the haunting first song, “Come away, death,” nor the enchanting last, “It was a lover and his lass,” can ever be forgotten. Also included on the disc is When I Set Out for Lyonesse, the only one of Finzi’s many Hardy settings that he chose to orchestrate.

The Interlude for oboe and strings was composed during the mid 1930s, originally for string quartet; later Finzi created an expanded instrumentation for string orchestra as an alternative. It is a 13-minute work of considerable substance, despite the self-effacing subordination implied by the title, with a dramatic intensity and concentration of effect rather uncharacteristic of the composer. Its expressive power is conveyed with far more impact in the fuller instrumentation, heard here in its first recording. Finzi enthusiasts should take note of this important item in the composer’s canon.