The very concept
of this festival grew from Gerald Finzi's
belief in the performance of British music.
Fittingly then, the weekend should end
with a talk by Paul Spicer on Finzi's
style, with a concert featuring Finzi's
great cycle. Spicer speaks with the insight
of a practising musician. Finzi was largely
self-taught, learning by experience and
listening. He was inspired by Bach, but
his foundations were British. He was influenced
by the cadences of British poetry, claiming
that a text could "choose" its
composer by appealing to his creative
imagination. Hence vocal lines relate
intimately to the spoken word, without
embellishment, repetition or melissima.
Finzi's emotional impact is pure, clear
with the poems of Thomas Hardy is well
known. Neither was a conventional believer,
but both sought spirituality through the
observation of life, contrasting man's
mortality with the forces of time and
nature. Despite his happy marriage, Finzi
shared Hardy's fatalism and sense of alienation.
Vaughan Williams' In the Spring
is a setting of a Dorset poet from an
earlier generation than Hardy's, but its
rustic text bears no relation to the vividness
of Hardy's Dorset. Brett Polegato, the
Canadian baritone who won the Cardiff
singer of the year in 1995, injected colour
into the song, but its beauties lie more
in the accompaniment, as usual well played
by Burnside. Vaughan Williams' The
Water Mill is a popular favourite,
but it is very much a lesser Die Schöne
Müllerin. The poem, by a relative
of Adeline Vaughan Williams, inspires
in the composer a vaguely Schubertian
setting, complete with rolling millstream
effects. Tired to a poem by Ursula
Vaughn Williams, was altogether more intimate.
Polegato sang the word "sleep"
with a deep, resonant timbre imbuing the
simple song with real tenderness.
studied with Vaughan William's teacher
Charles Stanford a few years after he
had moved on to Ravel and to greatness.
Clarke never achieved much fame, but hearing
four of her songs together in the context
of Vaughan Williams and Ireland highlighted
her abilities. Her The Seal Man,
to Masefield, who also inspired Ireland,
is particularly masterful. Polegato warmed
to this, bringing out the surreal tragedy
of the girl who loves a seal and is drowned
by love. Clarke's setting is elegiac yet
sinister at the same time. She draws a
contrast between the horror and the vulnerability
of the girl's "little white throat"
by changing tone and tempo. Polegato emphasized
the terrible line "man, who wasn't
a man at all " and his rolling
sank to the depths with the piano commenting
broodingly. A fascinating song with great
potential. This mode seemed to suit Polegato
as he sang June Twilight as gloomy
tragedy too. The Yeats poems,
Down by the Salley Gardens and The
Cloths of Heaven have been turned
to song many times, but Clarke's versions
stand up to scrutiny. Polegato moulded
and coloured the pivotal word "because",
in "Tread softly, because
you tread on my dreams".
song, Sea fever, suited Polegato's
robust singing style, as did Ireland's
Hardy settings, notably Great Things
("sweet cyder is a great thing").
However, a fairly monochrome interpretation
does not bring out the best in a song
or in a performer's voice. What is pleasant
enough in Ireland needs more in the complex
Finzi songs. Before and after summer
was Finzi's last Hardy group, and it contains
some challenging pieces. Childhood
among the ferns, for example, operates
on several levels of meaning, the voice
and piano part forming a dialogue. Polegato's
enunciation was slipping and an imprecise
focus in his approach began to take its
toll on his ability to bring the music
alive. The Self Unseeing is an
easier song to characterise, and Polegato
portrayed the smiling woman effectively,
and the final "But we were looking
was sung with meaning.
The mead may be
"dripped in montonous green"
in Overlooking the River Stour but
a little more variation in subtle shades
would have been welcome, too. There's
nothing monotonous about Channel Firing,
that bizarre, subversive vision of the
dead rising from their graves to the sound
of guns at sea, portending Armageddon.
Finzi's writing gives many opportunities
for tone painting and switches of emphasis.
It would be hard to make this song dull,
and Polegato rose to the occasion, using
his firm baritone to good effect when
singing the words of God. Burnside seemed
to evoke a marching rhythm in the piano
passage between these verses. Polegato's
firmness in "again the guns disturbed
was appropriately militaristic, but the
sudden leap to the delicacy and magic
of the final "star lit Stone Henge"
is tricky to pull off well at the best
of times. Polegato was good in the remaining
songs, like Amabel, and in Epeisodia in
particular there were lovely details,
such as when voice and piano shadowed
each other "where the footstep
Little infelicities like mispronunciation,
odd in a native speaker, were absolved
by fine dark singing in the last, important
verse of He abjures love.