FINZI Violin Concerto. In Years Defaced. Romance. Prelude

FINZI Violin Concerto. In Years Defaced. Romance. Prelude – Richard Hickox, cond; City of London Sinfonia; Tasmin Little (vn); John Mark Ainsley (ten) – CHANDOS CHAN-9888 (54:34)

The many admirers of the music of Gerald Finzi will need no urging from me that acquisition of this new release, issued in part  to commemorate the English composer’s hundredth birthday, is imperative. For one reason, the disc offers the first complete recording of the Violin Concerto Finzi composed during the mid 1920s for Sybil Eaton, a young violinist of whom he had become enamored, and for whom he wrote the work. The premiere took place in 1928 at Queen’s Hall, with Vaughan Williams conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and Miss Eaton as soloist. Although the occasion was one of the most auspicious of Finzi’s career, the concerto garnered a mixed reception, so that afterward the insecure composer set the work aside. The Violin Concerto was not to be performed again until 1999 (!), although the slow movement had developed an independent identity as a piece called Introit. The disc’s other indispensable entry for the Finzi specialist is In Years Defaced, a cycle of six songs, five of which were orchestrated specifically for the Finzi centenary, by five of today’s most notable English composers, as companions to “When I Set Out for Lyonnesse,” the orchestrated song that otherwise stands alone.

For listeners unfamiliar with the music of Finzi (1901-1956), some background: The descendent of a distinguished Jewish-Italian family, Gerald Finzi he was a thoroughly English but rather solitary aesthete with an avid, lifelong passion for English verse, especially that of Thomas Hardy, with whom he felt a strong affinity. His music was generally confined to a rather narrow range of expression, as he was concerned chiefly with creating musical settings for the poetry he loved. Of this he was a consummate master. Finzi’s music might be described as predicated on the elegiac lyricism of Sir Edward Elgar, articulated through a pseudo-Bachian arioso. Although his music is almost consistently diatonic, peppered with some traditionally English cross-relations, his style is unmistakably identifiable by anyone reasonably familiar with his work. Though his songs comprise the bulk of his output, brief, lyrical mood-pieces form an additional—and welcome—component. There are few large-scale works, the chief examples being a 45-minute setting for tenor soloist, chorus, and orchestra of portions of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, the frequently-performed Clarinet Concerto, and a late (1955) 40-minute Cello Concerto (recorded some years back by Yo-Yo Ma), with the addition of the Violin Concerto presented here.

As a committed (but not unqualified) Finzi admirer, I am delighted to have the Violin Concerto in its entirety. However, I must confess to a consistent impression that the composer’s more ambitious instrumental statements strain the boundaries of his highly rarefied and specific creative personality, forcing him to reach beyond his authentic expressive range to provide the sort of balance and contrast expected of such works. I have such reservations about both other concertos, and the same is true for the Violin Concerto—the outer movements, that is; they bounce along spiritedly and with good cheer, meeting the obligatory expectations adequately but without any real conviction or individuality. The slow movement, on the other hand—the aforementioned Introit familiar to many—is an altogether different story. A trifle longer than both outer movements combined, it is Finzi at his purest and most exquisitely ravishing, comparable in many ways to the slow movement of the Barber concerto. Some may feel that Finzi is served best by isolating the Introit, while others will certainly prefer to have the work in its full context. The performance offered here by violinist Tasmin Little is excellent.

The songs selected as companions to “When I Set Out for Lyonnesse” are “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence,” “In Years Defaced,” “Tall Nettles,” “At a Lunar Eclipse,” and “Proud Songsters.” All are lovely, sensitive, and probing settings; all but two are to Hardy texts. The composers chosen to orchestrate the songs are Colin Matthews, Jeremy Dale Roberts, Christian Alexander, Judith Weir, and Anthony Payne, respectively. I doubt that there was any intention to emulate Finzi’s orchestral approach, which tended to be modest and understated, in keeping with his aesthetic personality in general. These arrangements are quite imaginative and colorful, by comparison, though not at all incongruous with the music or the poetry. But they are clearly commentaries on Finzi’s music by independent sensibilities, as opposed to efforts at second-guessing how he “might have” orchestrated them himself. As such they are rewarding and enriching on their own terms. Tenor John Mark Ainsley, who has other Finzi recordings to his credit, renders these songs with both intelligence and artistry.

I have a special fondness for the Romance for string orchestra, as it was the first work of Finzi’s I ever heard; some 25 years ago a friend had just discovered it, fell in love with it, and played it for me, rightly anticipating that I’d feel the same way. Its lyricism is irresistibly ingratiating, with a warm, haunting melody that remains in one’s memory. Along with the Introit and the Eclogue for piano and strings, it is an ideal piece through which to discover the music of this remarkable composer. The Prelude for strings is another typically elegiac miniature, somewhat more subdued and understated than the Romance. The orchestral playing is superb throughout the recording.