In this context you’ll probably look askance or completely discount the views of someone who, though lapping up Finzi’s songs with piano, wishes Finzi had orchestrated them all. The composer did this service for When I Set Out for Lyonnesse. How I wish he had also done this for Budmouth Dears, The Clock of the Years, Childhood among the Ferns and Channel Firing. My ‘consolation prize’ would have been orchestrations by Howard Ferguson who had, it seems to me, a preternatural feeling for Finzi; but that was not to be. Something resonates deeply and movingly in Finzi’s treatment of and with the orchestra; would Dies Natalis be as sweepingly effective without the string orchestra? There are two works here that exist in what I consider preferable orchestral versions (Magnificat and Lo, the full, final sacrifice). A handful of the pieces chosen by Layton are heard with my other ‘hang-up’: the organ. Against this unpromising backdrop, I still wanted very much to hear and consider this disc of 75 minutes of Finzi’s music for choir a capella or with organ. By the way, the David Bednall work is in a meditative style not at all out of keeping with mature Finzi.
It’s probably impertinent to say that Stephen Layton has already proved himself over and over; no departure here. For my purposes his antecedents can be confirmed by listening to two superb Grainger collections, also coincidentally on Hyperion (CDH55236 and CDH55433). Layton injects some wholly appropriate blazing colour with a brass ensemble of seven in God is Gone Up. The poet’s ‘triumphant shout’ can find parallels in the ‘Shout round me’ in Intimations of Immortality and indeed in Walton’s ‘slain’ in Belshazzar’s Feast. It’s as bright as the colour scheme in a Diego Rivera mural; Finzi was given to this vivid mood, as we find in the brass and rumba interjections in Intimations of Immortality. It’s a shame Layton did not given in to the same temptation with the kindred spirit in All This Night. That piece, though, is given a briskly exuberant ‘surprised by joy’ performance. It’s a work I discovered early in my burgeoning Finzi enthusiasm from a broadcast of carols back in 1974.
The authoritative liner note is by composer Francis Pott and the sung words are laid out with completely predictable Hyperion clarity in the booklet. Similarly predictable is the clarity with which Layton’s middlingly big choir (41 for the accompanied works and 35 for the unaccompanied) shape the words so you can actually hear them (most of the time). Layton and the choir must have put many hours into achieving this result.
I found the proclamatory Magnificat in two versions (unaccompanied and with orchestra|) in the first flush of the Finzi revival in 1979-80. The first, unadorned, was on a L'Oiseau Lyre LP and the second was part of a Hickox Argo disc with orchestra. The work is notable from a documentary viewpoint for being Finzi’s last score and for having been commissioned by Iva Dee Hiatt, 1919-1980. Layton’s version has a wide-striding gait and a horizontal audio spread as well as having a splendidly planted ‘scrunch’ to the organ. Pains are taken over the pause towards the end and this makes the silvery fragility of the lovely ‘magnify the lord’ register strongly.
Welcome sweet and sacred feast has a gently unassertive sweetness about it. Finzi does not shrink from using a melody from one of his Let Us Garlands Bring songs. The quietly introspective My lovely one, like God Is Gone Up, sets words by Edward Taylor (c.1642-1729). The gentle White flowering days has been plucked from the multi-composer anthology Garland for the Queen. The Garland as a ‘collection’ has been recorded complete and issued most recently on Heritage but originally by Boris Ord on Columbia, but otherwise by Queen’s College Cambridge/Samuel Hayes (Guild), Bristol Bach/Glyn Jenkins (Priory) and on a 1977 LP on RCA Gold Seal by the Exultate Singers/Garrett O'Brien.
I find the delights of the Seven poems of Robert Bridges quite lower key. They date from the 1930s and comprise: ‘I praise the tender flower’ [2:13]; ‘I have loved flowers that fade’ [2:52]; ‘My spirit sang all day’ [1:42]; ‘Clear and gentle stream’ [4:01]; ‘Nightingales’, [2:55]; ‘Haste on, my joys!’ [1:57]; ‘Wherefore tonight so full of care’ [3:26]. The flame rises higher in ‘My spirit sang all day’ and ‘Haste on my joys!’ is taken at a good clip, but in general Finzi seems here yet to find his feet, much as in the case of the 1920s song-cycle By Footpath and Stile and the outer movements of the Violin Concerto.
The last offering is the Festival Anthem - Lo, the full, final sacrifice which was commissioned by that extraordinary cleric and man of music, Revd Walter Hussey (1909-85) of St Matthews, Northampton. Like the Magnificat, it works even more effectively in its version with orchestra. That said Finzi’s imagination was clearly fired by the concatenation of these two poems by Richard Crashaw (1613-49). The imagery, figurative and literal of the words, such as ‘O self-wounding Pelican’, wrought from Finzi music that reaches out and touches the thoughtful listener. The echo-repeated words ‘come away’ in the final (of eight) verses provides a valediction almost as effective as the final ‘Amen’.
Thus a vividly performed and recorded collection joins a previous Hyperion Finzi disc. Also, in terms of time and content, there’s an even more generous all-Finzi Chandos choral collection from 1991.
This is a very fine collection and while Seven poems of Robert Bridges is not classic top-drawer Finzi it is a work given what is probably its best chance by Layton and Hyperion. The rest is excellent Finzi (and Bednall) with much to reward the listener.