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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Earth and Air and Rain, Op. 15 (1928-32) [31:39]
Summer Schemes [2:34]; When I set out for Lyonesse [2:06]; Waiting both [3:24]; The phantom [3:45]; So I have fared [2:49]; Rollicum-Rorum [1:41]; To Lizbie Browne [4:01]; The Clock of the Years [4:24]; In a churchyard [3:51]; Proud Songsters [3:05]
To a Poet, Op. 13a (1921-56) [17:02]
To a poet a thousand years hence [5:02]; On parent knees [1:33]; Intrada [1:34]; The birthnight [1:45]; June on Castle Hill [2:01]; Ode on the rejection of St. Cecilia [5:07]
By Footpath and Stile, Op. 2 (1921-22) [23:14]
Paying calls [3:47]; Where the picnic was [4:04]; The oxen [2:42]; The master and the leaves [2:49]; Voices from things growing in a churchyard [6:34]; Exeunt omnes [3:17]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano) (Opp. 15; Op. 13a); Sacconi Quartet (Op. 2)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 27-28 August 2005 (Opp. 15, 13a); 10 January 2006 (Op. 2) DDD
NAXOS 8.557963 [71:54]

This release of Finzi songs, the fifteenth volume in the acclaimed Naxos ‘English Song Series’ contains three separate song cycles, sets or collections. This is the second volume of Finzi songs in the series; the first volume was released on Naxos 8.557644 (see reviews 1 and 2).
The issue opens with the cycle Earth and Air and Rain of Thomas Hardy settings; a masterpiece in the genre of English song. Next comes an assortment of song settings of various poets for baritone and piano that were assembled into a set after Finzi’s death and given the title To a Poet. The final cycle is By Footpath and Stile is an early collection of Hardy settings scored for baritone and string quartet.
The London-born Finzi was not prolific in terms of his output but his scores display a consistently fastidious, high quality craftsmanship, an attribute not always present in the works of his contemporaries. Finzi had an unbridled passion for literature, especially English poetry. At his death I understand that he left a stunning collection that contained over three thousand books. The thoughtful Finzi excelled as a particularly effective and sensitive setter of texts of his favourite poets. A large proportion of his scores were written for the voice. Finzi certainly made a major contribution to twentieth-century English song that has endured with considerable fondness both in the recording studio and in the recital hall. In the sleeve-notes it is claimed that Finzi, “made an unrivalled contribution to British twentieth century song-writing…” As outstanding as Finzi was as a song setter he certainly wasn’t “unrivalled” in twentieth century British song. I cannot overlook the extraordinary contribution made by his English-born contemporaries such as: Ivor Gurney, Peter Warlock, Roger Quilter, John Ireland, Herbert Howells, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten.
Composed between 1928-32 the song-cycle Earth and Air and Rain is a collection of ten songs set from Thomas Hardy who was the poet he most responded to and revered. Andrew Burn writes of Finzi, “He felt an empathy with Hardy’s bleak fatalism, his sense of transience, and his anger at the suffering that mankind afflicts on mankind.” The cycle contains two of Finzi’s most celebrated and contrasting settings, the drinking song Rollicum-Rorum and the poignant To Lizbie Browne.
Finzi at his death in 1956 left some twenty-four miscellaneous songs that he had composed throughout his career. They comprised settings of various poets. Howard Ferguson, Finzi’s wife Joy and his son Christopher assembled the songs into four groups, one set of six songs for baritone and piano was given the title To a Poet. I experienced slight disappointment with this ad hoc collection of songs. The lack of a coherent connecting theme from Finzi seemed evident.

The six songs for baritone and string quartet By Footpath and Stile was composed between 1921 and 1922 which makes them the earliest collection cycle set using the beloved poems of Thomas Hardy. The decision to employ a string quartet as an alternative to the piano accompaniment makes an astonishing and successful difference. Andrew Burn highlights the composer’s, “… preoccupation with death and the transience of life…” features that are so apparent in his choice of Hardy poems for the cycle. There is a sticker placed on the CD jewel case announcing that these Naxos recordings of By Footpath and Stile, Op.2 are world premiere recordings. Owing to the appeal of these scores it is astonishing that the song-cycle has not been recorded previously.
The baritone Roderick Williams seems to be everywhere at the moment but on the evidence of these performances it is not surprising he is much sought after in the recording studio. I first came across him fairly recently singing on the Vaughan Williams cantata Willow-Wood (1909) on Naxos 8.557798 (see reviews 1 and 2). Since then I have followed his career with great interest.
Williams seems to have a special affinity for these Finzi scores, displaying a rich pliable tone that is incisive and extremely dramatic as required. He is comfortable right across his range and his expressive interpretations are sincere and thought-provoking. It is pleasing to hear a baritone in this repertoire that does not have a distinctive intrusive vibrato, detracting from the enjoyment of the music. In the song cycle Earth and Air and Rain Williams’ interpretation of the memorable Rollicum-Rorum is deft and nimble and in To Lizbie Browne, which I believe to be the finest work contained on this release, we hear Williams articulate the expressive ache and the remorseful pining for what might have been. The baritone confidently provides measures of darkness and morbidity in The Clock of the Years and conveys an unearthly beauty In a churchyard. In the song cycle To a Poet, especially enjoyable is the way Williams communicates mystery and melancholy in To a poet a thousand years hence. By Footpath and Stile is impressive for Williams’ charming pastoral lyricism in Paying calls and the gravely brooding, dark emotions of Voices from things growing in a churchyard.
First class, well balanced sound quality from Naxos and interesting and informative booklet notes from Andrew Burn. Full texts are provided. Williams is in wonderful voice and the accompaniments from pianist Iain Burnside and the Sacconi Quartet are perfect. Any lover of English song would want to obtain this Naxos issue.
Michael Cookson

see also review by Anne Ozorio and Gwyn Parry-Jones


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see reviews of other Naxos recordings of British composers on Musicweb


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