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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Gerald FINZI (1901-56)
Cello Concerto (1955)
Eclogue for piano and orchestra (1929)
Grand Fantasia and Fugue for piano and orchestra (1953)

Tim Hugh (cello)
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths
Rec 14 and 26 Jan 2001, Jubilee Theatre, Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
NAXOS 8.555766 [62.09]


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This is a choice coupling. How typical of Naxos to ring the changes on the Finzi discography with fresh style and also with generosity.

The Finzi Cello Concerto is a work of ambition in which the composer seems to be reaching outwards beyond accustomed bounds. While the rondo finale is largely as gracious and jubilantly songlike as the earlier Clarinet Concerto (also available on Naxos) the other two movements, especially the first are struck through with the very same 'blank misgivings' that are touched on in one of his other masterworks, Intimations of Immortality. Had he lived was he to take a graver direction? Would he have completed an angry and poignant symphony?

What of this performance and recording? The climaxes which always had a tendency to a raucous grandeur are not as adroitly handled in this recording as in the 1979 Lyrita Recorded Edition which launched the career of Yo Yo Ma. The Lyrita LP has never been reissued - like so much else on that label. Apart from the aggression of the few climaxes Tim Hugh here gives a very fine and sympathetic performance of a work borne out of its time and out of the terminal stage of Finzi's final illness. He was able to hear from his hospital bed the BBC broadcast of the premiere as given by the Halle with Barbirolli conducting and Christopher Bunting as the soloist.

It is a particular pleasure that another cellist has taken this work into his repertoire. Yo Yo Ma seems rapidly to have dropped the work despite his outstandingly successful Lyrita recording. Raphael Wallfisch (the champion of so many neglected cello concertos - how about recording the John Foulds?) was left for many years to hold the standard high for the Finzi concerto - he must have performed it more than any other cellist. Wallfisch's attractive version coupled with a work by Kenneth Leighton is on Chandos at full price.

The piano and orchestra works owe their existence to Finzi's finally unconsummated struggle to write a piano concerto. The Eclogue is the better known work of the two. Its essence is from solitude, its spirit quiet-speaking and its mood contemplative ... even sorrowing. It is given a sympathetic performance but the recording seems close - overbearing for a piece that needs distance and inwardness.

The Grand Fantasia is an eccentric and loveable work. Its hyper-modernistic Bachian Fantasy reflecting writing which also shadows the piano parts of several of the songs is followed by the ricocheting syncopation and bravura of the Fugue. In Peter Donohoe's hands this becomes the grandest of grand shindigs - almost bombastic. Donohoe was a good choice for this work. Why on earth was he dropped after the first flush of EMI recordings in 1980s - his Tchaik 2 was phenomenal? The latter Finzi work pairs well with another work recorded by Donohoe for Naxos - the Walton Sinfonia Concertante itself a jazzy and vigorous piece..

At bargain price and with high performance values this disc merits a strong recommendation.

Rob Barnett

Terry Barfoot has also listened to this disc

Musical anniversaries are often useful in the longer term rather than merely being indulgent short-term celebrations. Certainly this has been the case as far as the centenary of the English composer Gerald Finzi as concerned. For there has been a veritable explosion of performances, and those who have hardly encountered the composer before have had many opportunities to realise that here we have a really major talent.

Of these things this new Naxos recording offers ample proof. No work has gained more from the centenary enthusiasm than the Cello Concerto, which was Finzi's last major work. And a major work it undoubtedly is, playing for a full forty minutes, on a scale equivalent to the great concerto of Dvorak. It is surely right to mention this music alongside the Dvorak concerto, for it is worthy of the comparison, and fully justifies its large and ambitious scale.

There is only one other version of the Cello Concerto, by Raphael Wallfisch on Chandos. That has recently been repackaged with the centenary in mind, and it makes a fascinating comparison with Tim Hugh's version. It would be too facile to say that one is better than the other, since any great work (for such this is) is always greater than any one performance of it. Wallfisch is the more wide ranging and dramatic of the two, to some extent because the Chandos recording treats him in the conventional 'concerto recording' manner, with a slightly larger-than-life' presence. But his playing justifies the attention, and he leads the way in a marvellous exposition of the dramatic and expressive possibilities the music has to give.

Hugh is more reticently placed, as though we were hearing him from towards the rear of the stalls. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, but it does mean that some of the expressive gestures in the solo part make less impact. The quasi-symphonic nature of the work, as the themes develop in the close-knit yet intensely felt context of the first movement, gains a strong focus because of the Naxos 'partnership of equals' approach, with the Northern Sinfonia playing with the utmost commitment. Perhaps the string section is a little small for this undoubtedly symphony-orchestra conception, but the playing really is first rate, in music which the orchestra can hardly have known prior to this recording session.

The slow movement is beautifully intimate, the finale full of energy. Both Tim Hugh and his conductor, Howard Williams, lay strong store on continuity of line, and it pays off in creating a performance which will give immense pleasure. Thus the two available recordings complement one another admirably, offering different visions of the work.

Where Naxos particularly scores is in the chosen couplings. In both his violin and piano concertante compositions, Finzi frankly lacked the courage of his convictions, with the result that he left behind various hybrids after abandoning the full projects. In the case of the piano music, the result was these two separate single movements: the Grand Fantasia and Toccata, and the Eclogue. The latter was only discovered and performed after the composer's tragically early death from Hodgkin's disease in 1956. It was written at the end of the 1920s and is a wonderfully tender and lyrical composition, in Finzi's best such vein, touched with genuine pathos and melancholy. The Grand Fantasia and Toccata, as its imposing title tells us, is quite another matter. Its powerfully rhythmic opening shows the influence of Bach, one of Finzi's recurring points of inspiration.

These performances by Peter Donohoe are quite splendid. And the Naxos sound has a presence and a brilliance which are not quite found in the recording of the Cello Concerto. Just try the opening of the Grand Fantasia to experience a powerful gesture captured in rich, full-toned sound, which turns to healthy and direct vigour once the lively Toccata gets under way. There is no question that this very interesting compilation adds much to our knowledge of this wonderful composer.

Terry Barfoot

 


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