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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
I Said to Love, Op. 19b (Words by Thomas Hardy) [13’34”]
Let Us Garlands Bring, Op. 18 (Words by Shakespeare) [15’02”]
Before and After Summer, Op. 16 (Words by Thomas Hardy) [32’43”]
Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 12-14 August 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557644 [61’19”]


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I love Finzi’s music, and his songs in particular. Have been greatly impressed with Roderick Williams every time I have heard him this disc was a tantalising prospect. I first listened to it back at the beginning of June but felt compelled to stop for what was to me a very important reason, which I shall explain shortly. However, that proved to be a blessing in disguise for I’ve now had time to let the performances settle, as it were, in my mind.

I began my listening with the Shakespeare collection, Let Us Garlands Bring. Like many other listeners, I suspect, these songs are more familiar to me than the Hardy settings that comprise the remainder of the programme. From the outset I was impressed with Williams’s easy, clear delivery. His diction is immaculate and the voice is projected evenly and naturally. These comments apply to all the contents of the CD. He displays a delightful lightness in ‘Who is Sylvia’ and there’s grace and wit in ‘O mistress mine’.  However I missed a twinkle in the eye in the concluding ‘It was a lover and his lass’, though the singing qua singing is very good. 

This collection – it’s not really a cycle - contains what is for me one of the very greatest of all English songs, Finzi’s setting of ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’. Williams’s dignified style in the opening stanzas gives the song a proper sense of timelessness and here, as elsewhere, Iain Burnside is an attentive and understanding partner. Williams lacks the sheer vocal amplitude of Bryn Terfel but perhaps that’s no bad thing for I believe that Terfel overdoes the dynamic range in his recording of these songs (DG 445 946-2). When Williams reaches the quasi-recitative passage at ‘No exorciser harm thee’ he is suitably withdrawn, though for me at this point no one has ever equalled John Carol Case in a long-unavailable Lyrita recording of the orchestral version of these songs; the way he sings the single word “witchcraft” is absolutely unforgettable. Overall, though, Williams gives a performance of this song and, indeed, of its companions that is extremely enjoyable.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to two of Finzi’s five collections of settings of poetry by Thomas Hardy. All of the sets are collected on a splendid 1984 two-disc set from Hyperion (CDA66161/2), through which I first got to know these songs. On that set the low voice songs are sung by Stephen Varcoe while Martyn Hill is the tenor. Hardy’s verse is not an obvious choice for a composer of songs. As the Finzi expert, Diana McVeagh, has justly observed, “The poems Finzi chose cover a wide range of verse-forms and metres, few of them easy running, many with intricate rhyme-schemes. The language is by no means always mellifluous. There are few spare words or bland descriptions, but keen precise observations. Lines are often hard-packed with crusty sounds and sometimes teasing inversions.” Yet, as she says “Finzi loved words”. As he had a life-long love of Hardy I suppose the poems represented a particular and very welcome challenge to him. Finzi sets the words in such a way that, despite Hardy’s metrical complexities, the music generally follows natural speech rhythms. That’s quite an impressive achievement in itself. However, I find that, perhaps because they are yoked to Hardy’s verse patterns, the melodic lines don’t lodge in the listener’s brain in the same way that they do in the case of Let Us Garlands Bring. It may be for this reason that the Shakespeare collection is better known.

I have quoted Diana McVeagh at some length quite deliberately. I mentioned at the start that I’d felt obliged to suspend listening to this CD. The reason was simple but vital. Hitherto Naxos have usually provided the texts of vocal works but on this occasion they don’t. Instead the texts are available on their website and reading between the lines of the message about this in the booklet I suspect this presages a new policy. I’m well aware that the provision of texts is a costly item for record companies. However, I regret the omission very much on this occasion. At the time I began listening to this disc I was away on holiday. I found that though I could appreciate the more familiar Shakespeare songs I simply couldn’t cope with the Hardy songs, which I know less well, without the texts to follow since the words are often complex and Finzi’s response to them is subtle. So I had to put the disc to one side until I got home and could access the texts from other recordings in my collection.  

With access to the texts one can appreciate much fine singing by Williams. The shorter collection, containing six songs, is I Said to Love, which was assembled after his death by his friend, the composer, Howard Ferguson in collaboration with Finzi’s widow, Joy and son, Christopher. Williams does the opening song, ‘I need not go’, with a winning ease and simplicity. He’s also nicely relaxed in the fifth song, ‘For Life I had never cared greatly’ and he brings admirable strength to the concluding song, from which the collection takes its title.

Before and After Summer is a more substantial collection, containing ten songs. These were brought together by Finzi himself. Like I Said to Love the songs were not all composed at the same time and, indeed, it’s not certain when some of them were written. The chosen poems cover a wide range of subjects and moods. The set includes one of Finzi’s most ambitious songs, ‘Channel Firing’. Williams does it very well, aided and abetted by an atmospheric contribution from Iain Burnside. Comparing Williams with Stephen Varcoe, though Varcoe has the lighter voice I find he evidences a bit more expressive variety in this big and important song.

The second stanza of the second song, ‘Before and after summer’, contains a lovely vocal melody against a stalking piano accompaniment. This is excellently done by Williams and Burnside. Williams sings with poise and seems wholly at ease with the music, as does Varcoe. I love the grave beauty that Williams brings to the opening stanza of following song, ‘The Self-unseeing’ and then the lightness of touch for most of the next two stanzas. Best of all, however, is way in which he darkens his voice for the last line, where Hardy – and Finzi - changes the mood completely. The penultimate song, ‘Amabel’, is done with a winning charm and grace although perhaps Varcoe conveys a bit more sense of lightness and lift. On the other hand, Williams has more vocal weight at his command and he uses it to telling effect in the final, louder verse. Certainly Williams, with his stronger vocal resources, puts across the final song, ‘He abjures Love’ with a touch more fervour than Varcoe.

So there’s much fine singing to admire and enjoy here. And yet ... I’m left with a feeling that there’s something missing. For all their considerable merits these performances just seem to be a little too restrained, too careful. It’s interesting to compare Williams, and indeed Varcoe too, with David Wilson-Johnson’s 1999 performances of six of the songs from Before and After Summer (on Global Music Network GMNC0116, a disc which I suspect is no longer available.) Wilson-Johnson’s readings are more robust, helped in part by the fact that he’s a bass-baritone. However, more than that, he displays a fire in the belly that his two colleagues don’t match – or, more likely, don’t seek to match, having a different conception of the music. This is particularly true of his performance of ‘Channel Firing’, which is dramatic almost to the point of being operatic, but he’s also very compelling in more relaxed songs such as ‘Amabel’. Wilson-Johnson’s way with these songs won’t be to all tastes – and will be anathema to some – and indeed I wouldn’t always want to hear Finzi sung this way. However, I’ve long thought that it’s a mistake to regard Finzi, as some do, as a gentle, understated composer. Beneath the surface beauty of his music darker, more passionate currents often flow and that’s true of several of his songs as well as of bigger pieces, such as the Cello Concerto. Wilson-Johnson’s performances give us a welcome glimpse of a more red-blooded Finzi.

But to return to the present disc, there’s a great deal to enjoy here. Roderick Williams is a splendid artist and he consistently displays sensitivity in these performances while the sheer beauty of his voice gives great pleasure. He produces his voice evenly throughout its compass. He’s free and easy at the top of his range while there’s ample potency and depth in the lower register. At all times his diction is crystal clear. He receives splendid support from Iain Burnside and the recorded sound shows both performers to good advantage.

This CD can be confidently recommended on two counts. For the newcomer to Finzi’s songs it offers an excellent and inexpensive introduction. The Finzi enthusiast will want to hear this exciting singer in some of the composer’s finest songs. So I’m happy to commend this disc. However, do try to hear Wilson-Johnson, who dares to be different and in so doing offers valuable insights to complement the more “conventional” approach encountered in the fine accounts by either Stephen Varcoe or Roderick Williams.

John Quinn

See also Reviews by Christopher Howell, Em Marshall, Jonathan Woolf and Anne Ozorio






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