Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Romance, Op.11 [7:13]
By Footpath and Stile, Op.2 [23:29]
Interlude, Op.21 [11:47]
Elegy, Op.22 [7:52]
Five Bagatelles, Op.23 [15:34]
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Robert Plane (clarinet)
Ruth Bolister (oboe)
rec. 2012, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
RESONUS RES10109 [73:05]
English song composers of the early 20th century found that the combination of voice and string ensemble had a particularly effective resonance in their settings for solo voice. By Footpath and Stile, Gerald Finzi’s first major song cycle and the first of his over 50 settings of Hardy’s poetry, was composed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, and is scored for baritone and string quartet. Even though it is such an early work (it was his first published composition) it shows many of the hallmarks of his style already firmly embedded. Beyond the musical language, as Christian Alexander points out in his booklet note, here we have “the seeds of lifelong obsession: the passing of time, mortality, the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and most importantly song itself”. The music follows closely the shape of the text and the spirit of the words, to the extent that at times it sometimes seems a little musically incoherent. But what would sound merely rhapsodic from the piano, is elevated by Finzi’s effective and imaginative handling of the string quartet. In the fifth of the settings (“Voices from Things Growing in a Churchyard”) for example, the viola introduces the melodic motiv which is repeated in each of the verses with the words “all day cheerily, all night eerily!” with a certain melancholy, which most effectively points out that we are in a graveyard contemplating the long-dead beings behind the names on tombstones. The “proud, high-bred” Lady Gertrude is supported with a pompous, stately theme from the quartet while Old Squire Audeley Grey’s aching bones and wearied tread are deliciously conveyed instrumentally. We think of Finzi primarily as a composer with an exceptionally perceptive understanding of the human voice, but here we see a masterly handling of the medium of the string quartet.
In the light of that it is perhaps surprising that he wrote no actual string quartets and only four works which, going by the categorisation in Groves Dictionary, can be classified as chamber music. Three of those four works are included on this disc – Elegy and five Bagatelles, which are presented here in arrangements by Christian Alexander which have broadened out the original piano parts for string quartet, and the Interlude for oboe and string quartet of 1936. There is also an arrangement for string quartet (again by Alexander) of a Prelude originally written for string orchestra during the 1920s.
The performances by the Finzi Quartet are, as you might expect, utterly attuned to the musical idiom and the composer’s distinctly, often hauntingly nostalgic, style. Both Ruth Bolister (in the Interlude) and Robert Plane (Bagatelles) are eloquent and sympathetic to the music, even if the former produces a rather broad tone which does not seem quite to fit Finzi’s often desolate writing. Plane, however, has to fight above an uncomfortably busy, fussy and often rather dominant string quartet in this arrangement; which serves only to show that Finzi knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote this superb and rightly core work for the solo clarinet repertory with piano rather than string quartet accompaniment. If nothing else, these third-party arrangements reveal that Finzi had a highly developed understanding of instrumental colour and effect, which is ignored much to the music’s detriment.
The current catalogues offer us Roderick Williams (on Naxos) as the only alternative to Marcus Farnsworth, and while I have huge admiration for Williams in his interpretations of English music of this period, I feel that Farnsworth gets rather closer to that strange combination of youthful eagerness jaundiced by the troubled times through which he lived, which informs By Footpath and Stile, and certainly the Finzi Quartet have a stronger empathy for this music than the Sacconi Quartet on the Naxos disc,