The relatively early death of Gerald Finzi at the age of fifty-five in 1956 was a grievous loss to British music, for amongst his not very large output are to be found a number of works of which it is not too strong a claim to state are masterpieces. Amongst these is the Cello Concerto, composed between 1951 and 1955, a work which – since its first recording by Yo-Yo Ma around forty years ago – retains something of a hold in the repertoire. Tenuous that hold may be, but it is genuine and fully deserved, and is a work the quality of which has not been submerged by the many lesser pieces for cello and orchestra which have appeared during the last sixty years (the Concertos of Shostakovich and Lutosławski, and Britten’s Symphony, always excepted).
At forty minutes, Finzi’s Cello Concerto holds the attention throughout: the quality of its musical thought, the natural intelligent writing for the solo instrument, the command of large-scale structure moulded to convincing expressive use, the superb orchestration and the consistency of the invention, without a single superfluous bar, make for a genuine work of art standing as a rock against the erosion of time.
Since Ma’s recording, there have been several more versions. This from Chandos is the second to appear from this company, the first – by Raphael Wallfisch – being recorded over thirty years ago. Fine as that earlier recording remains, as are those by other soloists, it is time for a new one, and this Finzi collection opens with Paul Watkins’s compelling and moving account of this great score. Indeed, familiar as I am with this music, I have never heard a performance as totally convincing as this, for Watkins and Sir Andrew Davis have clearly prepared their account so thoroughly as to reveal greater depths in this music of which I was unaware. In this performance, the threading of the line between soloist and his orchestral partners (no mere ‘accompaniment’ here) is at times revelatory, showing Finzi to have been a finer composer than even many of his admirers may have realised. I have played this recording several times, with each time bringing a fuller understanding of a score I thought I knew well.
But good as any recorded performance may be, the sound engineers have to play their part, and with the Chandos team we have a balance and integrated sound here which places the music, first and foremost, at the heart of the equation. Not for Watkins the ‘I must be heard at all times’ demands of some soloists I have encountered, to the subjugation of other, equally important, strands in the music: not that he is ever overshadowed by Davis and the BBCSO, but the ‘give and take’ of a genuine Concerto is here placed at the service of the music. This account is, surely, what Finzi must have imagined when writing the work.
Writing did not come easily to Finzi: it did not ‘flow’, in the manner it can with other composers, yet one would never imagine so from hearing his work. Here is a creator for whom ‘slow and sure wins the race’ may have been created, but his early death prevented the fulfilment of a golden gift of composition, and in his Eclogue for piano and string orchestra we have proof of that assertion. It was written almost thirty years before the Cello Concerto and was not heard until after the composer’s death, when the title was given to the score by Finzi’s executors, since when the quality of this music has endeared it to very many listeners and performers; there is a hauntingly original character to the piece.
That quality is, in a word, timeless: this music speaks with a directness and certainty of expression that is as relevant today as when Finzi first set the notes on paper ninety years ago. It is also exceptionally well written for the piano, and it is heartening that Louis Lortie has added it to his repertoire, for his reading here is in many ways fully the equal of any other I have heard, demonstrating the universality of a composer too often disdainfully and thoughtlessly dismissed as merely parochial. It may be that some will find Lortie just a little unyielding at certain points, but the poise and distinction of his phrasing and innate grasp of the idiom are truly what this music needs to make its customary profound impression.
Finzi’s other composition for piano and (this time full) orchestra is also here, but if its neglect in the concert hall should be set against the recordings it has received over the years. Its quarter-hour length and unfashionable title have placed it amongst those works considered nowadays as being too short for concert use, yet which were once performed regularly but which have succumbed to the worthless vagaries of fashion and ignorance. The Grand Fantasia and Toccata took Finzi many years before he was satisfied with it. Lortie is magnificent, capturing to perfection the inherent Englishness of the musical thought – it does not take too much imagination on the listener’s part to identify the natural Elizabethan unfolding of the opening layers of the music, as though Dowland and Tallis were reborn in the twentieth -century, their natural expression subsumed into latter-day speech and syntax.
In this, and in the other works here, Finzi is revealed as the great English master he was, still not fully appreciated in the land of his birth (but of how many other composers in this country can that not be said?), yet for me the revelation of this exceptional release is the Nocturne (New Year Music). Once more, we can identify those elements which are wholly, and solely, English in this music, the thread of the first Elizabethan era unbroken over the centuries, especially in a performance of such commitment and elegance as Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony give. It is very moving to hear such admirable musicianship, the only purely orchestral work on the disc. If you consider yourself to be a lover of English music, so long as you do not have this release, then your collection is incomplete.