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Finzi - Choral Works

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A superb collection of Finzi’s shorter choral works

Having known little of Finzi beyond his Clarinet Concerto I was pleased to receive this disc of smaller choral works, as this is a genre in which twentieth-century English composers have excelled. Here we have both sacred and secular numbers. Finzi’s idiom is a neo-romantic pastoral one. This suggests Vaughan Williams, but the Vaughan Williams of the third and fifth rather than the fourth and sixth symphonies, though as I listened, the music started to seem less and less really like Vaughan Williams.

The Magnificat was one of the composer’s last works, written when he was already in the grip of his final illness. There is an organ introduction before we get the opening phrase ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’, which is repeated several times. Finzi deploys his technique of setting out small motifs which are repeatedly returned to and developed, so unifying the composition. There is a complete pause at one point. There is, rather strangely, no ‘Gloria Patri’, but a well-developed ‘Amen’.

This work was written, not for Anglican Evensong but for Vespers, which uses the Magnificat but not the Nunc Dimittis. David Bednall had the charming idea of writing a Nunc Dimittis which would go with the Finzi, so that the two could be used together in Evensong. His setting stays close to the Finzi in idiom, for example also beginning with an organ solo, but not too close, and I noted some quite Holstian harmonies at one point. Bednall apparently also wrote a ‘Gloria Patri’ which can be fitted into the Finzi Magnificat, making up for its absence. That is not included here, which I think is rather a missed trick. This appears to be the first recording of the Nunc Dimittis, although it is not claimed as such.

You might have expected this Nunc Dimittis to be programmed immediately after the Magnificat, to stress their affinity. But in fact, they are separated by the three anthems of Op. 27, though not in numerical order. Welcome sweet and sacred feast, with words by the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, is a eucharistic anthem. My lovely one was written for a wedding. Both are sweet and gentle. God is gone up, however, is a celebratory work written for the Feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Stephen Layton has here added brass, which is doubtless quite inauthentic, but it sounds marvellous.

White-flowering days was written for a set of madrigals presented to the present Queen, recalling The Triumphs of Oriana, a collection presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1601. It sounds like a pastiche Elizabethan madrigal, which I suppose is exactly what it is. I found it delightful. All this night, unlike the other works here, was written for a very large choir. This is a short and straightforward jubilant work.

Bridges, the author of the Seven Poems, was poet laureate in the early twentieth century, but came to seem hopelessly out of date in the age of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Finzi’s settings are slight works, both poetically and musically, but short and charming and occasionally with some unexpected harmonies. They are perhaps best sampled one or two at a time.

Lo, the full, final sacrifice is a very different kettle of fish. This is a long and elaborate verse anthem. It was written for the Rev. Walter Hussey, a great patron of the arts – his best-known commission is probably Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms – when he was vicar of St Matthew’s in Northampton, a church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. I imagine this anthem might have been commissioned for the feast of Corpus Christi, which celebrates the institution of the Eucharist. Finzi has chosen two of the hymns St. Thomas Aquinas composed for the feast in the free translations of Richard Crashaw, another seventeenth-century metaphysical poet, and made his own choice of verses from them, reordered to suit himself. The anthem is written in a rich chromatic idiom, which rather suggests some of late Howells to me, and using the technique we noticed earlier in the Magnificat, of continuously developing motifs. This is by some way the most powerful work on the disc.

The performances seem to me absolutely superb. The Trinity College Choir is made up of current undergraduates, and so has a continually changing membership. Nevertheless, Stephen Layton has welded them into a coherent and consistent ensemble, rhythmically crisp, tonally warm, sensitive to the rapidly changing moods of the music and rising effortlessly – or so at least it seems – to the climaxes and complex passages. I cannot imagine better performances.

The recording was made in the Chapel of Trinity College and Hyperion are now old hands at this. (The organ-accompanied works were recorded in Hereford Cathedral.) The sound is warm, with the right degree of resonance. The sleeve note, in English only, is helpful and interesting. The texts of the poems are included. There are other recordings of most of this repertoire, apart from the Bednall, notably one by the eponymous Finzi singers under Paul Spicer, from Chandos. However, that is now nearly thirty years old and download only. This new collection is very welcome.

Stephen Barber

Finzi - Choral Works
Hyperion Records CDA68222