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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
I said to love Op. 19b (I need not go; At Middle Field Gate; Two lips; In five score summers; For life I had never cared greatly; I said to love.)
Let us Garlands Bring Op. 18 (Come away, come away Death; Who is Sylvia; Fear no more the heat oí the sun; O mistress mine; It was a lover and his lass)
Before and After Summer Op. 16 (Childhood among the ferns; Before and after summer; The self-unseeing; Overlooking the river; Channel Firing; In the mindís eye; The too short time; Epeisodia; Amabel; He abjures love)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Ian Burnside (piano)
Potton Hall, Suffolk, 12-14 August 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557644 [61'19"]


Roderick Williams is easily one of the finest young baritones working in this country at the moment. Yet he remains relatively unknown, hidden in the ghetto of English song, occasionally venturing into mainstream non-English opera. Nonetheless in his niche he is hard to surpass. He sings the entire range, from Purcell to new music, excelling in Britten, Vaughan Williams, Tippett, Turnage and his own compositions, which are very good. Few singers inhabit the English genre so perfectly

Nonetheless, like all truly good artists, Williams brings something innovative to what he does. Not for him the preciousness of the quintessential "English tenor" Ė heís a baritone, anyway. Nor does he sound like a voice from the past, frozen in performance styles redolent of the past; no Old Fogey he! English song isnít merely rosy-hued nostalgia: Williams brings out its strength of character. In recital, he is wonderful. His rapport with the audience seems to inspire him to sing with real, personal vivacity - something that is hard to replicate in studio recordings.

Finziís songs have had a renaissance in the last few years and it is interesting to hear how interpretations have evolved from their last wave of popularity in the early 1980s. Finzi had a poetís soul, choosing his texts with great care. His settings interpret the poems without overwhelming them. Alas, some Hardy poems donít always lend themselves naturally to melody. Nonetheless, they evoke vivid images whose impact is perhaps greater than the words alone. Therein lies the challenge for a Finzi singer. For example, in The Self-unseeing, you donít realise the song is about ghosts until the final line "Yet we were looking away!" This gives a singer the chance to contrast the understated music with a shock ending, though in fairness to Williams, Finzi simply scored the notes downward. For whatever reason, Williams plays down the drama, even in songs like Channel Firing where thereís plenty of licence to go for emphasis. Even when God says "No!" to the dead rising from the grave, itís more polite than forceful. Stephen Varcoe may not have as much colour in his voice, but his Hyperion version is more vivid. Perhaps Williams, in this showcase recording, is playing safe, taking no chances. Again, though, Williams is being faithful to Finziís writing, whose beauties lie in understatement, and in quixotic breaking of melodic lines within lines of text. But Iím being picky, remembering Williams in recital. This is an excellent recording, superbly sung.

Williams, however, is artist enough that he can impress without obvious dramatic devices. He deftly navigates the tricky phrasing in I need not go, making the song flow naturally, yet enough for a listener to appreciate Finziís artful setting. Again, in For Life I had never cared greatly, he shapes the lyrical lilting lines, so they sound as unforced as in normal, but melodious conversation. Even the Shakespeare cycle Let us garlands bring, sounds fresh and modern. Williams here is authoritative Ė no need for mannerisms or affectation. He brings out the timeless quality in these songs which Finzi sought. This is a more refined, elegant performance than the version by Bryn Terfel, whose ventures into the territory have brought new audiences to the genre.

Williamsí gift for direct communication shows in songs like Childhood among the ferns. His subtle, rolling way with the text is exquisite, evoking the atmosphere of a balmy summer day, ferns, swaying in the gentle breeze. Ian Burnsideís playing here is particularly delicate and lovely. So are you drawn into the reverie that the final words, "this afar-noised World perambulate" cause a shudder. Similarly, in Overlooking the River, he expresses how "the swallows flew in the curves of an eight / above the river-gleam / In the wet Junesís last beam" by stressing the upward pattern : "flew", "curves" "eight", and marking the slight gap between "wet" and "Juneís". His attack on certain high notes, such as "dripped" is cautious, yet strangely, reflects the underlying tone of the song as a whole. He also illustrates accurately the quirky phrasing of lines like "where the footstep falls / with a pit-pat wearisome / in its cadency / on the flagstones drearisome" in Epeisodia. The grammar may be convoluted, but Williams makes it sound perfectly natural.

A wonderful recording showing how English song can be performed with freshness and musical intelligence.

Anne Ozorio

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