Roderick Williams is perhaps one of the finest Finzi
singers ever. He’s immersed in the choral tradition, yet brings
to English song a new freshness. It’s a wonderful combination.
He understands the music and its background, yet sings with
a direct vividness that communicates beyond the genre, giving
it a universal, human quality that’s unfortunately sometimes
missed in the somewhat insular world of British music. Finzi
may have written in the English manner but there is something
deep in his music that transcends context.
Footpath and Stile is an early
cycle, begun in 1921, revised but left unfinished until Howard
Ferguson edited it half a century after the composer’s death.
Although this is very early Finzi, signs of his mature style
are already glimpsed. The first song, whose first line gives
the cycle its title, is one of those quixotic poems Finzi
liked, where the punchline suddenly overturns the cosy bucolic
image. The protagonist is visiting the dead, in a graveyard
“beyond where bustle ends”. Williams sings the last two lines
of The Oxen in high half-voice, bringing an instant
sophistication to an otherwise unexceptional song. In this
cycle, the violin is as much a singer as the baritone, its
long lines weaving in and out, indeed, introducing and ending
the cycle. It punctuates Voices from things growing in
a churchyard, helping differentiate the individual portraits:
it makes a good counterpoint to the strophic lines or verse
and setting. With the lightest of nuance, Williams whispers;
“all day cheerily, all night eerily”, trite words,
perhaps but he gives them dignity. Violin and viola embellish
the vocal line in the final song, closing the cycle surprisingly
well, hinting at the future.
style is more mature in the much loved Earth and Air and
Rain. This has been recorded several times, but Williams
will be the new benchmark. His voice is richer and his style
more forthright, Burnside’s playing equally direct and clear.
Their version of Waiting Both is the best I’ve heard.
Burnside captures the famous Finzi “twinkling star” theme
in sparkling half-tones: Williams capturing that curious but
effective Finzi feel for emphasizing words in strange syntax
“What do YOU mean to do, mean to do”. His voice is
even richer and more beautiful in So I have fared,
a song which can be impossibly coy with its latin refrain.
His choral background makes the latin sound completely natural,
like modern speech integrated with modern English. Yet Williams’s
style is essentially beyond time and genre. His Lizbie Browne may be a Devon lass in Hardy’s imagination, but Williams makes us all identify with
the feeling. He makes The Clock of the Years a dramatic
story whose horror unfolds slowly. If Burnside’s tempi are
a shade slow, they suit the mood. Indeed, in Proud
Songsters, Burnside brings out the awkward alienness of young birds by following
Finzi’s subtle discords and odd rhythm. It enhances the sense
of strangeness Williams evokes, reminding the listener of
the fragility of life, and indeed, of the mystery of new life
itself. Already, here are hints of Finzi’s greatest masterpiece
Dies Natalis, already in gestation at the time
these songs were composed.
pertinent that this is followed by the songs in To a Poet
that celebrate birth and youth. Indeed, Thomas Traherne’s
Intrada is here in a vocal song which will become purely
instrumental in Dies Natalis. Williams shapes the lines
“Things strange, yet common, most high, yet plain” with
the same otherworldly strangeness that marks the later cantata.
Finzi’s setting of Walter de la Mare’s The Birthright
is completely different, though the theme, too, is wonder
at the miracle of birth. It’s warmer, more intimate, more
human. The contrast is all the more reason, I think, to value
the essentially spiritual fervour of Dies Natalis.
The Finzi Trust made this recording possible.
Finzi’s admirers, this will be an important addition, but
it’s ideal, too, for those completely new to the genre, because
Williams is so direct and natural.
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