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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Requiem da camera (1923-5) [23.42]1
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Cantata misericordium, Op.69 (1963) [19.38]2
Chorale after an old French carol (1944) [5.00]
Deus in adjutorium meum (1945) [5.17]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Two Psalms, H117 (1912) [13.29]3
John Mark Ainsley23 (tenor), Stephen Varcoe12 and David Hoult1 (baritones), Alison Barlow13 (soprano)
Britten Singers, City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. St Jude’s Church, Central Square, London, 15-16 February 1991
CHANDOS CHAN 10783X [67.37]

Chandos continue their praiseworthy series of mid-price Hickox reissues with one of the best discs he ever made for them. It is particularly valuable for the première recording of Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da camera - and there have been no recordings since - but that is not its only claim on the attention.
It has to be admitted however that the Finzi’s early Requiem da camera is not a work of overpowering genius like his later choral Intimations of Immortality or In terra pax, both of which also had to wait many years to gain full appreciation from audiences. He was still at this time finding his feet as a composer, and the opening prelude in particular sounds more like an imitation of the English pastoral style than the real thing itself - the melodic lines simply don’t have the sustained emotional profile that Finzi would afterwards achieve with such apparently effortless ease. Nevertheless it is a beautiful piece, setting words by John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Wilfrid Gibson with all the feeling and compassion that this superlative word-setter commands. Any lover of Finzi will have to have this recording in their collection. The work was left unfinished, and Philip Thomas has furnished an orchestration of Hardy’s Only a man harrowing clods which has exactly the right feel for Finzi’s style - not incidentally at all like the music Thomas (himself a composer) was writing at the time, and played to me at a number of sessions at his flat. It is helped by a marvellously sympathetic performance from Hickox which brings out the many incidental glories of the score, not least in the aforementioned prelude. Stephen Varcoe delivers the Hardy setting with tenderness and understanding. The chorus are excellent although rather too backwardly placed in the balance for their words to be clear. As I say, this recording is an absolute must.
Britten’s Cantata misericordium was written to celebrate the centenary of the Red Cross. It’s a setting in Latin of the parable of the Good Samaritan which is in places almost operatic in its style, including as it does orchestral interludes to represent the passage of time. Apart from the initial recording by Britten himself with Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the solo roles - following on from their appearance in the première of the War Requiem a year earlier - this is the only recording of the work in the catalogues. The two soloists in this performance, John Mark Ainsley and Stephen Varcoe, don’t bring the same sense of dramatic involvement to the work that was contrived by their two distinguished predecessors. However, the very fact that their voices are less idiosyncratically individual lends the music a more contemplative feel without sacrificing the passionate sense of involvement with the words. The piece, with its Latin text, lacks the overwhelming emotional appeal of the settings of Wilfred Owen in the War Requiem, but the music comes identifiably from the same period of Britten’s career. The opening words of the Samaritan, delivered by Ainsley more steadily than Pears could contrive at this stage of his career, are beautiful indeed.
The two other Britten works, both for unaccompanied chorus, were never recorded by Britten himself although both have rightly attracted the attention of cathedral choirs since they were published after his death. Both inhabit the same world as the Hymn to St Cecilia and indeed the words for the Chorale after an old French carol are also by W H Auden. The choir beautifully convey the saturated textures of the music.
The two Holst psalm settings are glorious little masterpieces, and here they are given a performance without rival in the catalogues. Imogen Holst recorded Psalm 86 many years ago, and her recording is available in a number of couplings from EMI; but she did not record the equally marvellous Psalm 148, and despite the singing of Ian Partridge the sound of the chorus is not well blended. The recording of both pieces by Hilary Davan Wetton, which adopted a very ecclesiastical ambience, appears to be no longer available; that by Queen’s College Choir uses organ accompaniment, which robs us of Holst’s beautifully written string lines. Hickox here gives us the full treatment, and John Mark Ainsley yields nothing to Ian Partridge in the sheer beauty of his singing. Alison Barlow is much better in the brief soprano solo than Imogen Holst’s unnamed (and very uncontrolled) singer. These two Holst settings would alone be worth the price of this record; the other works make it irresistible.
I bought the original CD when it originally was issued in 1991, and I have played it many times since. The new reissue comes complete with full texts and translations as well as the original booklet notes - which simply goes to show that reissues of earlier material can be properly presented, unlike the policy of so many others. If any lover of the music of English twentieth century composers does not have this disc in their collection, they should take steps to rectify the omission immediately.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Britten discography & review index

Finzi discography & review index