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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
CD 1
Before and After Summer ten songs for baritone and piano (Op. 16 (Childhood among the ferns (1947/8?); Before and after summer; The Self-Unseeing (1949); Overlooking the River before (1940); Channel Firing (1940); In the Mind's Eye; The Too Short Time (1949); Epeisodia; Amabel (1932); He abjures love (1931)) [32:25]
Till Earth Outwears seven songs for tenor and piano Op. 19a (Let me enjoy the earth before (1936); In years defaced (1936); The Market-Girl (1927, revised (1940); I look into my glass (1937?); It never looks like summer here (1956); At a lunar eclipse (1929, revised (1941); Life laughs onward (1955)) [16:40]
I said to Love six songs for baritone and piano Op. 19b (I need not go before (1936); At Middle-Field Gate in February (1956); Two Lips (1928); In five-score summers (1956); For life I had never cared greatly); I said to Love (1956)) [13:26]
John Carol Case (baritone)
Robert Tear (tenor)
Howard Ferguson (piano)
CD 2
A Young Man’s Exhortation ten songs for tenor and piano Op. 14 (A Young Man's Exhortation (1926?); Ditty (1925); Budmouth Dears (1929); Her Temple (1927); The Comet at Yell'ham (1927); Shortening Days (1928); The Sigh (1928); Former Beauties (1927); Transformations (1929); The Dance Continued) [26:27]
Earth and Air and Rain - ten songs for baritone and piano Op. 15 (Summer Schemes; When I set out for Lyonesse; Waiting Both (1929); The Phantom (1932); So I have fared (1928); Rollicum-rorum; To Lizbie Browne; The Clock of the Years; In a Churchyard (1932); Proud Songsters (1929/1932)) [29:55]
Neil Jenkins (tenor)
John Carol Case (baritone)
Howard Ferguson (piano)
rec. December 1967, Decca Studio No. 3, West Hampstead, London (CD1); April 1970, St John’s Smith Square, London (CD2). ADD
2 discs for the price of 1
First issued on two Lyrita Recorded Edition LPs: SRCS 38 and SRCS 51
LYRITA SRCD.282 [62:41 + 56:30]

Experience Classicsonline



 

This pair of CDs offers further examples of how pioneering recordings by Lyrita have been overtaken and yet not overtaken. These recordings have been unavailable for so long that perhaps their importance has been forgotten. At the time they appeared some of them may have been first recordings though, characteristically, Lyrita has always eschewed such banners as "World Première Recording". In recent years we’ve had the benefit of fine CD versions of all these sets of Finzi songs, most notably from Hyperion and from Naxos. But at the time these first appeared there were far fewer Finzi recordings available.

Nowadays collectors have the choice – what luxury! – of fine Finzi performances by several singers, including James Gilchrist and Roderick Williams and, in particular, this present set comes into direct competition with a Hyperion box entitled Earth and Air and Rain (CDA 66161/2) in which Martyn Hill (tenor) and Stephen Varcoe (baritone), accompanied by the late Clifford Benson, offer exactly the same programme. However, as we shall see, this Lyrita set is far from outshone by more recent arrivals in the catalogue.

As is the case with the aforementioned Hyperion, we are offered here all five of Finzi’s collections of songs to words by Thomas Hardy. I use the word "collections" advisedly because only one, A Young Man’s Exhortation, can be called a cycle. In fact two of the collections, Till Earth Outwears and I Said to Love, were assembled after Finzi’s death by his executors from among the many individual, unpublished songs that he had left behind. These were published in 1958 as Opp. 19a and 19b respectively.

With their penchant for doing things properly Lyrita engaged the composer and long-time friend of Finzi, Howard Ferguson (1908-1999), to play the piano parts for all these recordings. I choose the words "play the piano parts" very deliberately because these are very much more than "mere" accompaniments. Finzi always wrote truly independent piano parts and the pianist is a key protagonist in these songs. Ferguson may not have as great a reputation as a recital accompanist as, say, Iain Burnside or Clifford Benson but his contribution to these present performances is immense. Indeed, given his skill as a pianist combined with his intimate knowledge of and great empathy for Finzi’s music one could fairly argue that his involvement makes these performances uniquely authoritative. Nor is his contribution confined to the keyboard for the excellent booklet note is by Ferguson also.

Modestly, Ferguson makes no reference in this note to the role that he played in bringing Till Earth Outwears and I Said to Love before the public. As one of Finzi’s executors he played a major part in assembling these two collections of songs and seeing them through to publication. Furthermore, he was the pianist at the first performance of both, partnering Wilfred Brown in the 1958 première of Till Earth Outwears. The previous year he took part in the first performance of I Said to Love. On that occasion the singer was John Carol Case, so their reunion here adds an extra degree of authenticity.

Recently I reviewed John Carol Case’s Lyrita disc of Let us Garlands Bring and I felt obliged to point out what seemed to me to be a number of deficiencies in his singing by the time he made that recording. Though the date of that recording was not specified I suspect that it was later in his career than the performances under consideration here for I find no tonal problems with his singing on these discs nor is his diction as stilted as it sometimes appeared in the case of Let us Garlands Bring. Robert Tear is another singer whose voice I came to find less and less appealing as his career progressed. His tone seemed to me to acquire an unwelcome beat but I don’t find that to be an issue here. Both of those singers are well known, not least through fairly extensive discographies. By contrast Neil Jenkins is perhaps less familiar to the general public today. It’s some years since I can recall hearing him though he still pursues a very active career, these days not just as a singer but also as a conductor and musicologist. His performance of A Young Man’s Exhortation offers a timely reminder of his accomplishments as a singer. It’s a nice coincidence that the appearance of these discs right at the end of 2007 neatly coincided with the fortieth anniversary of his London debut recital.

John Carol Case has the lion’s share of the singing on these discs. He’s in excellent voice for Before and after Summer. His diction is crystal clear at all times – though he never sounds mannered – and the voice is evenly and pleasingly produced. He responds excellently to Hardy’s frequent changes of mood within a poem, such as in ‘The Self-unseeing’. Comparing him with Stephen Varcoe I find that his singing is consistently more characterful. I think it also helps that Carol Case is recorded somewhat more closely than Varcoe. Varcoe’s voice is naturally lighter than Carol Case’s but the older singer seems to bring much more to these songs. In the magnificent ‘Channel Firing’ Howard Ferguson establishes a tremendously eerie atmosphere right at the start – though Clifford Benson, for Varcoe, is strong on atmosphere also. Carol Case’s delivery is superbly characterful. Varcoe, though musical, doesn’t probe as deeply and the faster tempo that he and Benson employ does not suit the music as well as that in Carol Case’s account, where there’s greater breadth. The extra degree of mystery and power that Carol Case and Ferguson bring to this song makes it no contest, I fear.

Varcoe’s lighter timbre and style is better suited to ‘Amabel’ but even here I find that Carol Case and his partner offer just a bit more, putting more lilt and lift into the rhythms. Consistently Carol Case really sings off the words – note, for example, his emphasis on the words "fatuous fires" in the fourth stanza of ‘He abjures Love’. Varcoe also emphasises those words but nowhere near as effectively. Carol Case gives us a really thoughtful reading of the final stanza of this song and for all his musicianship Varcoe doesn’t really match him.

In the other two baritone collections comparisons generally favour Carol Case also. In I Said to Love he really catches the still ambience of a bleak, chilly February day in ’At Middle-Field Gate in February’. That said, the rather still, withdrawn approach of Varcoe strikes me as equally valid. ‘For Life I had never cared greatly’ seems, at first

glance, to be a fairly easygoing song but Carol Case gets under the skin of the words and makes one realise that this is a deceptive song. The final song in the set, from which the collection takes its title, is one in which, as Diana McVeagh says, Finzi displays "unusual vigour and defiance". This is just what we hear from Carol Case and his greater vocal power gives him an undoubted edge over Varcoe.

In Earth and Air and Rain Carol Case offer further insights. Listen, for example, to what he does with the word "magic" in the third verse of ‘When I set out for Lyonesse’. The word appears twice, but its use by Hardy and treatment by Finzi is different on both occasions and Carol Case conveys that splendidly. I like Stephen Varcoe’s simple, direct way with ‘So I have fared’’, with its somewhat contrived double rhymes. Carol Case is more forthright here yet he also points the words with more purpose. I also like the wistful way in which Varcoe delivers ‘To Lizbie-Brown’, though Carol Case does it well too. Carol Case has splendid bite in ‘Rollicum-rorum’ and offers a dramatic and intense reading of ’The Clock of the Years’. Finally, the thoughtful, expressive account of ‘Proud Songsters’ is a fine conclusion to Carol Case’s excellent performance of these songs.

If I have a distinct preference for John Carol Case in the baritone songs matters are by no means as clear-cut in the two sets of tenor songs. Robert Tear is on pretty good form for Till Earth Outwears. There’s vibrato in evidence but not to an extent that I find as troubling as in his later recordings. He always had a tendency to put pressure on top notes, particularly when singing loudly, but though that happens sometimes in this performance it’s not too great a distraction. In fact there’s much to admire in his singing, not least the way he delivers the very difficult quiet high-lying line at the words "O not again Till Earth outwears" in ‘In Years defaced.’ However, Martyn Hill on the Hyperion set has a lighter voice and he floats this line even more appealingly. In general Hill’s voice sounds more natural and easily produced than Tear’s and overall his timbre is more to my taste. Hill employs less vibrato and high notes seem to come more easily to him. This is not to criticise Tear – the voices are quite different – but perhaps Hill is more suited to Finzi’s music. Both singers offer fine readings of ‘It never looks like Summer’. Hill is light and easy in his delivery but neither he nor Clifford Benson underplays the feeling. Tear, though, excels as well and perhaps he and Ferguson extract just a bit more from the song. The mysterious first stanza of ‘At a lunar Eclipse’ is superbly done by Tear and Ferguson. Their performance is pregnant with atmosphere and Tear employs a quiet head voice that I’d quite forgotten was in his vocal armoury. He and Ferguson build the second stanza expertly and theirs is a tremendous performance though Hill and Benson are also very good in this song. Tear also sings the last song, ‘Life laughs onwards’ very well and, once again, perhaps finds just a little bit more in the music than does Hill.

Hill’s rival in A Young Man’s Exhortation is Neil Jenkins, who sings with an attractive, clear voice. He surmounts Finzi’s high tessitura with a little more ease than Robert Tear. Jenkins does ‘Budmouth Dears’ well, his singing keen and light. This is a real tongue-twister, out of the same mould as ‘Rollicum-rorum’, and Jenkins’s excellent diction serves him well. Hill is equally successful in this regard but what tips the balance in his favour is the uninhibited ring with which he delivers the exultant high note at the end of each verse. In complete contrast to that extrovert setting, the first verse of ‘The Comet at Yell’ham’ is strange and remote. Jenkins does it very well but Hill is even more acute, employing his head voice quite marvellously – perhaps the fact that he’s recorded a bit more distantly than Jenkins helps the ambience in passages such as this? There’s a striking interpretative contrast in the second stanza of this song. Hill sustains the remote mood throughout whereas Jenkins becomes rather more forthright.

Jenkins and Ferguson perform the opening of ‘Shortening Days’ most atmospherically and they do the Holstian march of the second verse very well. However, Hill is even more withdrawn and inward at the start, conveying a real autumnal feel. He and Benson employ a more specious – and daring – tempo and it pays off. They build the second verse marvellously and the ring in Hill’s voice on the final word – "press" – is thrilling. I like the wistfulness in Jenkins’s singing of ‘The Sigh’. The final song, ‘The Dance continued’, brings frequent changes of mood and Jenkins gives a splendid performance to round off the cycle in style. Mind you, Hill also sings this exquisite song superbly.

So, on balance my preference in the two tenor sets would be for Martyn Hill. But both Robert Tear and Neil Jenkins offer many insights and lots of fine singing. All three singers are well in tune with Finzi’s muse.

I find it impossible – and invidious – to choose between the two pianists. Perhaps on occasion the all-round experience of Clifford Benson as a recital accompanist pays greater dividends but there are many places where Ferguson’s unique knowledge of Finzi and his music produces a moment of insight or rapport that is quite special. Suffice to say that both pianists are splendid partners for their singers.

An important factor for some collectors may be the recorded sound. On the Hyperion set the singers are set further back in the acoustic. I feel that this works to Martyn Hill’s benefit sometimes but it is not so advantageous for Stephen Varcoe. On the Lyrita set the singers are more forwardly recorded and I think this works better. In fact the Lyrita sound is consistently clear, pleasing and satisfying in every way.

The documentation here is very good. All the texts are supplied and the note by Howard Ferguson is excellent. Hyperion’s documentation scores in one respect in that, where known, the date of composition for every song is given. That’s quite important since Finzi tended to gather together in his song collections compositions from various stages in his career.

In his note Howard Ferguson has this to say: "Finzi always had an instinctive feeling for the voice, in spite of the fact that he himself could never be persuaded to sing. He had, too, a remarkable faculty for sensing the essence of a poem and recreating it in terms of music." The validity of that judgement is displayed time and again throughout this fine pair of CDs. These performances have most certainly not been overtaken by subsequent recordings. They offer as fine and important a listening experience as they did when first they were issued on LP and their reappearance on CD is cause for rejoicing. This set is indispensable for all admirers of Finzi’s music and it should be equally self-recommending to all lovers of English song.

John Quinn

See also review by Rob Barnett

 

 


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