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It has long seemed to me that, with the possible exception of Ivor Gurney, no composer of songs has responded more acutely to the nuances of the English language than Gerald Finzi. However, in his thoughtful booklet essay the composer Francis Pott makes the interesting – and very valid – point that Finzi, like Delius and Holst, perceived himself as something of an outsider looking in on the English musical establishment. In Finzi’s case, he could trace his ancestry back to Jewish Italian roots and, as Pott reminds us, Finzi chose to keep his Jewish ancestry private. Anyone not knowing – or guessing from his surname – would presume that Finzi, with his devotion to preserving and growing obscure varieties of English apples and his deep knowledge of English literature, was the quintessential Englishman. And that Englishness, however one may define that characteristic, radiates through this programme of Finzi’s sacred and secular choral music.
On the secular side, Stephen Layton has made a discerning selection from the composer’s part-songs. We hear the complete set of Seven poems of Robert Bridges. Apparently, Finzi admitted to his friend, the composer Robin Milford, that he was dissatisfied with these songs but I must say that they strike me as being uniformly successful. All seven songs benefit from lovely mélodies, harmonies and textures and, crucially, in each song Finzi displays a characteristic sensitivity to the words. The third song, ‘My spirit sang all day’ is perhaps the best known; Finzi’s setting manages to mix exuberance and thoughtfulness. ‘Clear and gentle stream’ deserves to be much better known; the music is lovely and, appropriately, has a fine flow to it. ‘I praise the tender flower’ is very beautiful but, then, one could say that about all these songs. The Trinity choir makes a fine job of them.
White-flowering days, a setting of lines by Edmund Blunden, was Finzi’s contribution to the collection of madrigals by various composers which, under the title, ‘A garland for the Queen’ celebrated the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Francis Pott rightly describes it as “a shapely and contained utterance”. I admired the delicacy and intimacy of both work and performance. By contrast, All this night is a much more “public” and jubilant piece, no doubt reflecting the fact that Finzi was asked to write it for performance by a large, and I assume amateur, choir of some 400 singers.
The rest of the programme consists of sacred music, recorded in Hereford Cathedral, which was also the recording venue for the accompanied items in the choir’s 2016 programme of choral works by Stanford (review).
First up is the Magnificat. This was not written for use at Evensong but, rather, for a performance of Christmas Vespers at an American college. That is why, Francis Pott explains, it lacks a concluding ‘Glory be’. I’m slightly confused by that explanation because I believe that the doxology is normal at Vespers as well as Evensong. Be that as it may, the setting, which is in English, ends instead with ‘Amen’ which Finzi sets to exquisitely radiant music. This Magnificat is rhapsodic in tone, the writing consistently attractive and the word painting sensitively done. The piece includes some ecstatic outbursts and also several exquisite gentle passages. The melodic and harmonic language is absolutely typical of the composer and the independent organ part, superbly played by one of the College’s Organ Scholars, Alexander Hamilton, adds significantly to the success of the piece.
This Magnificat was a standalone piece, lacking a companion setting of the Nunc dimittis so David Bednall has composed a setting with the specific intention that, programmed together, Finzi’s Magnificat and Bednall’s Nunc could be sung liturgically. His setting includes a ‘Glory be’ which is so written that it can also be inserted into Finzi’s piece immediately before the ‘Amen’. Bednall’s piece is no Finzi pastiche but it very neatly complements Finzi’s composition. From a subdued start Bednall builds to a blazing climax at ‘To be the glory of thy people Israel’, before the work acheves a rapt, tranquil conclusion. I must say, I slightly question the track ordering: I would have preferred to hear the Bednall piece immediately after the Magnificat – and, indeed, that’s how I programmed the disc. It’s a shame there wasn’t space on the disc to include as a ‘bonus track’ the Magnificat including Bednall’s doxology: I’d like to judge how well it works.
Between the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ we hear the three pieces, composed over a period of some six years, which Finzi published as his Op 27. Welcome sweet and sacred feast is a setting of words by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) and Finzi responds to the words acutely. The music breathes the same air as Lo, the full, final sacrifice and Layton’s choir sing it really well. My lovely one is a wedding anthem, full of fragile beauty. For that anthem Finzi chose words from Sacramental Meditations by Edward Taylor (c1642-1729) and that’s also the source for the words of God is gone up, probably Finzi’s best-known choral work. On this occasion we hear this fine Ascension anthem in an arrangement by Stephen Layton in which he enriches the organ part in the outer sections of the work by the addition of brass, timpani and cymbals. The extra instruments certainly enhance the grandeur of Finzi’s fanfare-like material though I don’t think it’s all gain. A few bars in, after the initial fanfare, the original version has a low pedal note (a B natural) for which reeds are specified. On the right organ and in the right hands – or feet – the effect of this one, sustained note can be very exciting but here the addition of timpani actually blunts the effect, I think. However, that’s a small point, even though it returns two or three times. Overall, I think Layton’s arrangement works and the present performance is excellent.
The programme concludes with the masterly Lo, the full, final sacrifice, a setting of a mystical text by Richard Crashaw (1612/3-1649) which is based on two hymns by St Thomas Aquinas. The tone for the present performance is set by the marvellous way in which Alexander Hamilton plays the mysterious, atmospheric organ introduction. There follows a performance in which singers and organist are alive to every nuance in Finzi’s score. There are some wonderful passages in this score. The melody at the words ‘O dear memorial of that death’ is quintessential Finzi, but even more so is the melodic line for the solo tenor/bass duet (‘O, soft, self-wounding Pelican!’), here expertly sung by Edward Cunningham and Francis Postles. This glorious work receives a superb performance here, culminating in the gently radiant ‘Amen’.
We are accustomed, happily, to excellent recorded recitals from Stephen Layton and the Trinity College choir. This is another fine example of their work. The blend of the voices is ideal and these student choristers sing with an excellent mixture of maturity and freshness. Words are clear throughout, as are the choral textures. In the accompanied piece the two organ scholars, Alexander Hamilton and Asher Oliver, make first rate contributions. The recording was in the safe hands of engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock. Both are massively experienced in recording programmes of the kind and it shows: the sound has warmth ad clarity with just the right mount of resonance round the voices. The organ is balanced very well with the choir. Francis Pott’s notes are insightful and valuable.
Hyperion Records CDA68222