An evening of charming songs by much neglected composer Gerald Finzi.
This Saturday saw a series of concerts at Wigmore Hall dedicated to the repertoire of the Ludlow English Song Festival, featuring music for voice and piano mainly from the English Pastoralist tradition, but also stretching backwards to Parry, and at a tangent to Britten. The last of these concerts, on Saturday evening, showcased the songs (several published posthumously) of the much neglected composer Gerald Finzi in a recital entitled Still alive & frying bacon.
In contrast to last week’s hot mess of an evening dedicated to Finzi’s friend and contemporary, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Saturday’s recital was a skilfully constructed concert sketching out Finzi’s short life through an eclectic and text-appropriate selection of his songs (delivered beautifully by tenor Robert Murray and baritone James Atkinson and accompanied with stylistic excellence by pianist Iain Burnside) and readings from Diana McVeagh’s recently published collection of letters between Finzi, his wife Joyce (Joy) and their musical friends – Vaughan Williams, Howells, Gurney and Farrar. Finzi’s style tends to be best described as ‘lyrical parlando’ – wandering but enjoyable melodies that cross the metre of the poems (many by Thomas Hardy) accompanied by flowing piano parts that are often full of half the note values of the vocal line – and they can come across as a little samey (as one of Finzi’s correspondents remarked in a slightly waspish letter). A long evening of full song cycles, then, might have become a little tedious, but the interspersing of the musical material with moving or witty exchanges of correspondence (the title of the concert is a quote from a letter from Finzi, left on childcare duties for a spell, to his wife) made for an enchanting and well-seasoned short concert.
“…Saturday’s recital was a skilfully constructed concert…”
Both Murray and Atkinson have exactly the right voices for the material, full of English lyrical style, and both flexible enough to deploy different tones and moods that brought the poetry to life and added textural variety to Finzi’s musical material – for example, some finely judged mezza voce singing by Atkinson in ‘Epeisodia’, possibly the most pastoral of the songs, or the clear, slightly declamatory style brought to ‘His golden locks’ by Murray, pointing up the song’s obvious influence of Bach’s chorale preludes. Of them all, perhaps the loveliest and most accomplished was ‘June on Castle Hill’; over a short song, Finzi’s musical mood shifts from bucolic contentment to the coming storm of the Second World War, the whole pulled together by an idée fixe in the piano part (brilliantly brought out by Burnside), and Atkinson’s vocal dexterity gave exactly the right degrees of light and shade to the text.
Not all the material was by Finzi, and the concert included the slightly spiky ‘Even such is time’ by Ivor Gurney (Finzi’s role-model), ‘Brittany’ – full of a glorious rolling piano accompaniment and gracefully floated higher notes from Murray – by Ernest Farrar (Finzi’s teacher), and ‘In days like these’, an interesting 2021 Finzi tribute piece – a setting of one of Finzi’s letters – by Martin Bussey.
The three readers – Katy Hamilton, Donald MacLeod and Ian Skelly – also did a fine job, imbuing the correspondence with sparkle and life, and a couple of quotes still resound; the first from Joy in a letter to her husband: “I feel like a halved nut when you go”, and the second from Finzi himself, that perhaps sums up the power of music to console in troubled times: “A song outlasts a dynasty”.