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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Earth and Air and Rain, Op. 15 (1928-32) [31:39]
To a Poet, Op. 13a (1921-56) [17:02]
By Footpath and Stile, Op. 2 (1921-22) [23:14]
(see end of review for details)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano) (Opp. 15; Op. 13a); Sacconi Quartet (Op. 2)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 27-28 August 2005 (Opp. 15, 13a); 10 January 2006 (Op. 2) DDD
Notes and full texts of songs included
NAXOS 8.557963 [71:54]



Roderick Williams has already recorded the Finzi song-cycles I Said to Love, Let Us Garlands Bring, and Before and After Summer on Naxos. Here he continues the sterling work.
 
English solo song is a deceptive genre. Although the songs often appear simple, in actual fact they are not easy to pull off effectively. For them to work, every nuance must be brought out, every slightly inflection must be spot-on, every word invested with the right emotion. Williams is no stranger to English solo song and always gets to the heart of the work. Here he is, as always, beautifully sympathetic, awake to all nuances of the text – listen to wonderful shades of light and dark in When I set out for Lyonesse, to the poignancy in Lizbie Brown and the chilling intensity in Clock of the Years. He demonstrates excellent versatility – from the rumbustious Rollicum-Rorum, scintillatingly performed – through to the intense and serious (Ode on the Rejection of St. Cecilia), or the beautifully tender – The Birthnight.
 
This is the only version of By Footpath and Stile currently available. It was Finzi’s earliest Hardy setting, written in 1921-22, and was later withdrawn by the composer, whose plans to revise it were not fully seen through. The work was abandoned until Finzi’s friend, the composer Howard Ferguson edited it for republication. Although not as convincing as Finzi’s later Hardy settings, it nonetheless demonstrates the composer in the process of finding his own “voice”. The songs are deftly crafted, and often deeply moving. It is scored for string quartet accompaniment, sensitively performed here by the Sacconi Quartet.
 
Williams has a lovely rich, dark tone, and exquisite enunciation that facilitates his excellent communication of the words and the meaning. He is well accompanied by Iain Burnside. Glorious songs, and brilliantly performed.
 
Em Marshall
 
And a further perspective from Rob Barnett ...
 
Irrespective of Roderick Williams’ intelligent emotional engagement with these songs this disc will have sold well among Finzians. It is, after all, the world premiere of By Footpath and Stile. Could there be a more English pastoral title? Interestingly Finzi selected string quartet and voice rather than the more dramatic and more potently coloured combination chosen by Gurney and RVW. Both RVW (On Bredon Hill) and Gurney (Ludlow and Teme) are laid out for voice and quartet with piano. More of that cycle later.
 
First there are the two song sets, one assembled posthumously by Ferguson. Earth and Air and Rain was put together by Finzi. Summer Schemes is lit by Burnside’s magical picturing of the rivulets’ bubble and gurgle. Lyonesse is given a fine adroit swing but the magic is neither as hushed nor as tense as in John Carol Case’s 1960s version on the recently reborn Lyrita SRCD282 (see review). Rollicum Rorum has the panache of Ireland’s Great Things – a song spiced with satire. Williams’s firmly-centred tone is a delight. To Lizbie Browne is as touching as ever with its sweet melding of troubadour love song and schadenfreude. The words ‘You disappeared’ are echoed superbly in the piano line by Burnside. Wonderful stuff. The Clock of the Years is virtually an operatic scena. Its spoken introduction adds a patina of awed Gothic. I have often regretted that this song, unlike comparable Sibelius songs (Count Magnus and Höstkvall), was not orchestrated by Finzi or Ferguson. The tenth and final song, Proud Songsters is a lament sweetened with a lilt. The ceaseless cycle of life returns to particles of earth and air and rain and begins again. This looks forward to science and backward to similar carpe diem sentiments in Bantock's stylistically very different Omar Khayyam in which Roderick Williams plays a key solo role.
 
To a Poet is a posthumous assemblage made by Howard Ferguson. Its level of inspiration is desultory by comparison with the tenor set. There are exceptions though. To a poet a thousand years hence, a Flecker poem, has the air of an H.G. Wells scena and touches on one of Finzi’s lifetime themes: friendship with like-minded souls across the centuries. On parent knees and Intrada link with Intimations and the mystic ‘Land of Lost Content’: childhood. Blunden’s Ode on the rejection of St. Cecilia has some deeply touching moments including at the words “Earth sleeps in peace”. This contrasts with the sullen hum of wars to come which in itself links with Arnold’s ignorant armies clashing by night in Dover Beach as set by both Samuel Barber and the yet to be discovered Maurice Johnstone.
 
By footpath and stile is laid out instrumentally to the same specification as the original chamber version of George Butterworth's Love Blows as the Wind Blows and as several of Warlock's songs including My Lady is Pretty One and the Corpus Christi Carol. The string quartet colouring is more subtle and less stark than if there had been a piano present. There is here in the first song that same soft insinuating chiming also to be found in the Butterworth cycle. The Oxen has been set by a number of British composers including RVW in his late masterpiece Hodie (recently issued on Naxos). Finzi is smooth but his setting does not rival the touching RVW. Williams in the later songs makes the most of the refrain All day cheerily … all night eerily. His thoughtful excellence is also apparent in the way he imparts differentiation to Fanny Hunt, Bachelor Bowring and the rest in Voices from things growing in a churchyard. The final Exeunt Omnes is typically downbeat yet without the redeeming renewal of the ‘Apple Tree Shaker’: Folk all fade ... Soon one more goes thither.
 
By Footpath and Stile has moments of great beauty but Finzi was still finding his feet at this stage in his career. It is a more successful essay than the Chandos-revived Finzi Violin Concerto where only the middle movement, which we have long known as Introit, is stunningly successful. The cycle is done magnificently though does not efface memories of the first broadcast BBC revivals of the cycle by the Allegri with David Wilson-Johnson on 2 October 1982 and three years later by Michael George with the Bochmann.
 
This disc is the fifteenth in The English Song series from Naxos. They gained a flying start by reissuing all of the Collins Classics English Song discs and have added to it since. I very much hope that they will go on to give us a generous selection of the song output of C.W. Orr, one of the grievously neglected masters of British music. His Housman settings are miniature dramatic scenes painted with raw sensitivity and unfailingly poignant response. Further in the future can we look forward to the songs of Mary Plumstead, John Williamson, Margaret Wegener and John Jeffreys?
 
Rob Barnett

See also reviews by Anne Ozorio, Gwyn Parry-Jones and Michael Cookson

British Composers on Naxos page

Track details
Earth and Air and Rain
Summer Schemes [2:34]
When I set out for Lyonesse [2:06]
Waiting both [3:24]
The phantom [3:45]
So I have fared [2:49]
Rollicum-Rorum [1:41]
To Lizbie Browne [4:01]
The Clock of the Years [4:24]
In a churchyard [3:51]
Proud Songsters [3:05]

To a Poet
To a poet a thousand years hence [5:02]
On parent knees [1:33]
Intrada [1:34]
The birthnight [1:45]
June on Castle Hill [2:01]
Ode on the rejection of St. Cecilia [5:07]

By Footpath and Stile
Paying calls [3:47]
Where the picnic was [4:04]
The oxen [2:42]
The master and the leaves [2:49]
Voices from things growing in a churchyard [6:34]
Exeunt omnes [3:17]



 


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