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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Earth and Air and Rain, op. 15, By Footpath and Stile* op. 2, To a Poet. Op. 13a.
Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano); Sacconi Quartet
* world premiere recording
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, August 2005, January 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.557963 [71:54]


Roderick Williams is perhaps one of the finest Finzi singers ever. He’s immersed in the choral tradition, yet brings to English song a new freshness. It’s a wonderful combination. He understands the music and its background, yet sings with a direct vividness that communicates beyond the genre, giving it a universal, human quality that’s unfortunately sometimes missed in the somewhat insular world of British music. Finzi may have written in the English manner but there is something deep in his music that transcends context.

By Footpath and Stile is an early cycle, begun in 1921, revised but left unfinished until Howard Ferguson edited it half a century after the composer’s death. Although this is very early Finzi, signs of his mature style are already glimpsed. The first song, whose first line gives the cycle its title, is one of those quixotic poems Finzi liked, where the punchline suddenly overturns the cosy bucolic image. The protagonist is visiting the dead, in a graveyard “beyond where bustle ends”. Williams sings the last two lines of The Oxen in high half-voice, bringing an instant sophistication to an otherwise unexceptional song. In this cycle, the violin is as much a singer as the baritone, its long lines weaving in and out, indeed, introducing and ending the cycle. It punctuates Voices from things growing in a churchyard, helping differentiate the individual portraits: it makes a good counterpoint to the strophic lines or verse and setting. With the lightest of nuance, Williams whispers; “all day cheerily, all night eerily”, trite words, perhaps but he gives them dignity. Violin and viola embellish the vocal line in the final song, closing the cycle surprisingly well, hinting at the future.

Finzi’s style is more mature in the much loved Earth and Air and Rain. This has been recorded several times, but Williams will be the new benchmark. His voice is richer and his style more forthright, Burnside’s playing equally direct and clear. Their version of Waiting Both is the best I’ve heard. Burnside captures the famous Finzi “twinkling star” theme in sparkling half-tones: Williams capturing that curious but effective Finzi feel for emphasizing words in strange syntax “What do YOU mean to do, mean to do”. His voice is even richer and more beautiful in So I have fared, a song which can be impossibly coy with its latin refrain. His choral background makes the latin sound completely natural, like modern speech integrated with modern English. Yet Williams’s style is essentially beyond time and genre. His Lizbie Browne may be a Devon lass in Hardy’s imagination, but Williams makes us all identify with the feeling. He makes The Clock of the Years a dramatic story whose horror unfolds slowly. If Burnside’s tempi are a shade slow, they suit the mood. Indeed, in Proud Songsters, Burnside brings out the awkward alienness of young birds by following Finzi’s subtle discords and odd rhythm. It enhances the sense of strangeness Williams evokes, reminding the listener of the fragility of life, and indeed, of the mystery of new life itself. Already, here are hints of Finzi’s greatest masterpiece Dies Natalis, already in gestation at the time these songs were composed. 

It’s pertinent that this is followed by the songs in To a Poet that celebrate birth and youth. Indeed, Thomas Traherne’s Intrada is here in a vocal song which will become purely instrumental in Dies Natalis. Williams shapes the lines “Things strange, yet common, most high, yet plain” with the same otherworldly strangeness that marks the later cantata. Finzi’s setting of Walter de la Mare’s The Birthright is completely different, though the theme, too, is wonder at the miracle of birth. It’s warmer, more intimate, more human. The contrast is all the more reason, I think, to value the essentially spiritual fervour of Dies Natalis.

The Finzi Trust made this recording possible.

For Finzi’s admirers, this will be an important addition, but it’s ideal, too, for those completely new to the genre, because Williams is so direct and natural.

Anne Ozorio 

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