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Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
I Said to Love op.19b [13:34], Let us Garlands Bring op.18 [15:02], Before and After Summer op.16 [32:43]
Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 13th-14th August 2004
NAXOS 8.557644 [61:19]

 


Naxos have usually provided texts with their song recitals if not with the operas, but the latest policy is to tell you that if you want the texts you can find them on their website. For this relief much thanks; it’s useless for me to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have access to Internet since they won’t be reading this review either, but those who opt to download the words will have NINE sheets of A4 paper to store away somewhere (they certainly won’t squeeze into the jewel-case) each of them neatly printed on the left margin, the remainder of the space left blank.

But perhaps somebody has worked out that those who don’t bother and just sit back and listen will never find out that the Hardy poems sound infinitely better simply read than sung to these often fussy settings. Of course, a musical setting doesn’t remove the original poem from circulation and there are many settings – including maybe some of the Shakespeare ones here – which we cherish while yet cherishing the original; but the setting must be an independent work of art and it must at least achieve equal status with the original. Quite honestly, I cannot imagine what Finzi thought this laboured exposition of "Channel Firing" could ever add to the black humour of the poem itself; it simply takes away the sense of the poetry without substituting a sense of its own.

And again, the bitterness yet poised irony of that cruel lament for lost love, "Amabel", is more than anything cushioned by the folksy setting. Is there anything more Roderick Williams could have done to put the music across? I don’t think so; these are performances perfectly in the English tradition, with rounded tone, clear on the words and plenty of pained subtleties to show he’s thinking about the meaning of the words. And yet, if you turn to the performance of "Before and after Summer" (the single song, no.2 of the cycle of that name) included by the remarkable Malena Ernman on her "Songs in Season" recital, the music is made to engage vividly. The trouble is, not just the pronunciation but the whole manner are those of American cabaret, so the true believer will detest it; but if there is to be any chance of anyone outside the British Isles taking this music seriously, this is the sort of communication required.

The Shakespeare songs of op.18 are a different matter, since these were all poems which Shakespeare interpolated into his plays as songs – they were meant for singing and don’t have complicated meanings or metres. All the same, Finzi does insist on disturbing his melodic line with fiddly displaced accents and the like as he underlines minute rhythmic variations within the poems themselves, perhaps more than necessary. Elgar used to criticize Parry for this, and yet if you compare Parry’s own setting of "O Mistress Mine", or, in their various ways, those by Stanford, Craxton and Quilter (all of which can be found on disc), you find the composers offering more sheer delight in singing, and the singer can always emphasize those little changes of metre anyway. I must say though, when I took out the recordings of the first and last songs of this cycle made on Saga by the very young Janet Baker, the word settings all came out naturally, so perhaps Williams is over-fussy in his pointing of them. Iain Burnside accompanies proficiently but his touch, as recorded (but it seems to be recorded well) is not able to give luminosity, and therefore beauty, to Finzi’s dissonant harmonies and the carefully noted voice-leading on the second and fourth pages of "For Life I had never cared greatly" do not come across.

Songs for those who like that sort of thing, then, sung by somebody who evidently likes that sort of thing. I used to think I did; I am coming to realize that the British song repertoire post-Stanford and Parry does indeed contain riches, but these are not necessarily where common wisdom tells you they are.

Christopher Howell

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf, Anne Ozorio and Em Marshall



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