Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Five Bagatelles for clarinet and string quartet
(arr. Alexander) (1943) [15.22] Elegy for violin and piano (1940) [8.33] Romance for string quartet,
(arr. Alexander) (1928) [8.05] Diabelleries (1950) [14.05] Introit for violin and piano,
(arr. Howard Ferguson) (1925) [7.38] Interlude for oboe and string quartet (1933-36) [11.37] Prelude and Fugue for string trio (1938) [9.06]
Cologne Chamber Soloists
rec. 18 September, 18-19 October 2015, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmunster. DDD/DSD MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM 90318946 SACD [74.51]
This is an extremely impressive release, featuring both playing and music of the very highest quality, and including an important world première recording to boot. The disc opens with an arrangement of the Five Bagatelles. Although, as an admitted purist, I find it hard approve fully of arrangements other than those undertaken by the composer himself, this one, for string quartet rather than piano accompaniment for the clarinet, has been particularly well-done. It combines sensitivity to Finzi’s piano writing with imagination in terms of the layering of voices amongst other aspects. The playing is as impressive as the arrangement – the members of the string quartet match the focus and incisiveness of their sound in order to take account of the different characteristic sound of the clarinet, and to blend with it. It is extremely rare that one finds this done at all – let alone done as well as it is here. The sound that the five players produce is really quite lovely, and they are gentle and dreamy in quieter movements and superbly energetic and lively in the faster movements. There are very good colour contrasts within phrases, too, as they alter their articulation and attack to vary the sound. I also particularly like the lovely sense of bounce that the string quartet captured - particularly noticeable in the Forlana.
After an exceptionally strong start with the Bagatelles, I felt that the tempo of the following Elegy could do with a little more flow – the pace is just a little too relaxed and the work feels just slightly held back and hampered as a result, although the playing is otherwise very good indeed. The Romance is here also in an arrangement for string quartet, and the quartet produce a gorgeously sweet tone. Although they generate a very radiant and rich sound in the piece, I did, however, miss the fuller sound of the string orchestra. Diabelleries, the world première recording on this disc, is a set of variations on the tune “Where is my basket gone” by Alfred Scott-Gatty; it was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s idea in 1950 to ask leading contemporary composers to write a variation each as a present for the champion and promoter of contemporary English music, Anne Macnaghten. The work opens with Vaughan Williams’s jaunty presentation of the theme, which is followed by a fun Waltz from Howard Ferguson, a busy second variation from Alan Bush, and an utterly identifiable and distinctive variation from Rawsthorne (it couldn’t be anyone else). Then we have a Canonic Interlude from Elizabeth Lutyens and a con passione from Maconchy, an elegant and beautiful Forlana from Finzi, and Grace Williams does the seventh variation, before a bold and jovial Finale from Gordon Jacob. It is a fabulous little piece and quite surprising, and shocking, that it has not been recorded until now. The Cologne Chamber Soloists give a persuasive and compelling account.
However, the jump from the roistering Finale of Diabelleries to the delicacy of Finzi’s Introit jars badly, and I felt that this was poor programming. The disc should really have ended with Diabelleries, as none of the Finzi pieces here for smaller forces would really work placed after it. In the Introit the piano is rather too distant and recessed in comparison to the violin, yet the playing is again excellent, with impressively steady harmonics in the violin towards the end of the piece. There is a good sense of drama in the following Interlude, and the Prelude and Fugue gives a colourful and characterful conclusion to the disc.
On the whole, an exceptionally good disc with outstanding playing.