FINZI: Eclogue. BRIDGE: There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. Lament. An Irish Melody. Two Entr’actes. Two Old English Songs. Sir Roger de Coverley. PARRY: An English Suite. William Boughton conducting the English String Orchestra; Martin Jones, piano. NIMBUS NI-5366 [DDD]; 70:31.
During the past decades, the better-informed portion of listening public seems to have realized that England has supplied some of the most captivating and tasteful easy-listening music of the 20th century. Much of this music draws its appeal from a combination of national folk melos and a quasi-Baroque clarity and lightness of texture. Of all the fine composers who have contributed to this segment of the repertoire, perhaps the most consistently rewarding is Gerald Finzi (1901-56). Finzi was a composer of undeniably narrow range — concentrating primarily on songs and short instrumental works that tap a vein o£ poignant sweetness — but of great intelligence and highly cultivated sensibility as well. Within a thoroughly diatonic tonal language that would have barely caused Brahms to raise an eyebrow, he was able to develop a deeply touching individual voice unmistakably present in all his music. Of his short instrumental compositions, the Eclogue for piano and orchestra is one of his most successful — a work of utter serenity tinged with a wistful hint of sadness — and it is an ideal piece to present to friends or relatives who think they don’t like classical music, especially of the “modern” variety. In fact, I predict that, once some enterprising director exploits its potential in an appropriate film, Finzi’s Eclogue will find a place alongside the Pachelbel Canon and Barber’s Adagio as a major classical “hit.”
Most of the space on this disc is devoted to music by Frank Bridge, a somewhat more complicated creative figure. Although his range was broader than Finzi’s, most of the pieces collected here are short, ingratiating diversions. Somewhat more probing is There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook, an atmospheric 10-minute tone poem based on an episode from Hamlet, in which impressionistic harmony and orchestration are used to conjure a dusky, brooding quality at times almost reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann. However, as in much of Bridge’s music, a leisurely approach to structure and the lack of a strong melodic profile cause the piece to seem diffuse and overlong. Similarly, Lament, dedicated to the memory of a child killed on the Lusitania, fails to make a strong impression despite its elegiac tone. The other pieces are much lighter in character, with an overt tunefulness and geniality of spirit that are of obvious appeal though I find the lush, chromatic harmonic treatments a little too rich for the material and, hence, overly slick in effect.
Hubert Parry was a contemporary of Grieg and thus his 20-minute English Suite is somewhat more straightforward in style than the other music on this disc. Its six contrasting movements are lively, tuneful, and graceful, with a gentle warmth that will charm listeners who enjoy theHolberg Suite, although its lack of emotional complexity results in a limited level of appeal.
I know that my appetite for light music is small and excludes much that others might enjoy; such listeners needn’t be offended by what I have written and might read between the lines to draw their own conclusions. Certainly no one but heartless snobs will be able to resist the Finzi. The performances here are adequate, but not as clean as one might expect from such a widely heralded ensemble and conductor.