Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)

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Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius

Listen

Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify:

On record: Janine Jansen plays Brahms and Bartók Violin Concertos

Featured recording: Janine Jansen pairs the Brahms Violin Concerto with Bartók’s First
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Leading violinist Janine Jansen explores violin concertos by Brahms and Bartók, bringing out the Hungarian connections between them. The accompaniment is from Antonio Pappano and orchestras from the Santa Cecilia Academy and London.

What’s the music like?

This is an unusual pairing that has not been tried on disc before, but it makes perfect sense. Brahms’ Violin Concerto has a finale that makes much of Hungarian gypsy music, so the leap from that to the thoughts of the young Bartók is not as big as you might think.

The Brahms is a big piece, heavily weighted towards its first movement, which at 21 minutes is more than half the length of the work. In this recording Janine Jansen uses cadenzas (the display parts for violin alone) written by Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s friend and the dedicatee of the concerto. Joachim was a long-fingered virtuoso, and because of that the violin part is technically very demanding.

Bartók’s Violin Concerto no.1 is the first of two such published works, and was completed when the composer was in his mid-20s. It also includes traditional Hungarian music but now the language is noticeably more modern, with crunchy harmonies, swaggering cross rhythms and a solo part that sounds more like a duel with the orchestra. In the Brahms the two forces are very much ‘on side’.

Does it all work?

This is an inspired pairing. Jansen plays with a beautiful tone in the Brahms but just as much credit should be levelled at conductor Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia orchestra, for their singing accompaniment that makes the listener want to hum along with the tunes. The Brahms has been recorded a lot of late but in this recording there is a fresh approach, as though the melodies have just been written. The oboe solo in the slow movement is gorgeously played, while the rustic finale is joyous and uninhibited.

The Bartók is similarly fresh, and again the orchestra – this time the London Symphony – cut through all the different textures and crossrhythms to make sense of this occasionally complex music. The rhythmic profile is strong once again, while technically Jansen is right at the top of her game, graceful in the first movement and gritty in the second but without losing any poise.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The two works complement each other in a highly original and brilliantly played pairing.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here: