Gerald Finzi is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic, and to the extent he is, it’s probably because of the semi-accurate film Hillary and Jackie which attempted to chronicle the complex relations (let’s leave it that) between him, the du Pré sisters, and Daniel Barenboim. Be that as it may, the man himself was brilliant a composer whose life, and thus his output, was cut tragically short by incurable illness (parallels to the cellist du Pré sister are inevitable and if nothing else, a strange twist of fate).
Foremost among his works, which run the gamut and include a fair amount of choral and vocal works which don’t interest me at all is his cello concerto, Yo-Yo Ma’s premiere recording (with Lyrita in 1979) — a version that certainly still holds up but really doesn’t give us much in terms of the mature artist Ma would become, or the fullness of expression this relatively short but enormously expressive work contains. With Handley at the helm, a master of the British style, this does come off a bit too low-key for my taste, sounding at times like it was a Vaughan Williams concerto (let’s leave the cow rolling in the hay out of it) rather than having more of the vim and vigor we get from Raphael Wallfisch, whose Chandos record recorded seven years later with the same man conducting, shows what can happen when a more mature soloist puts his stamps of a work, and a conductor allows him or her to drive the performance. Here we have infinitely more energy, literally from start to finish, and in this work there’s really not a wasted bar. It’s entirely more alive than the Ma version, and the Chandos sound is brighter and fuller than the Lyrita. It’s a pity Ma has never returned to the work; one wonders what the mature cellist would produce rom this score today, with its full range of mood and emotion, presenting so much room for expression, not just from the ensemble but in from the solo passages themselves.
In that regard, it’s actually a much more recent CD version, recorded by Tim Hugh — Jackie du Pré’s pupil no less — on Naxos in 2001 with Howard Griffiths and the Northern Sinfonia, which totally surpasses both Ma and Wallfisch. It’s slightly quicker overall, and by far the most energetic of the three versions, full of life and leaving one feeling uplifted, despite the melancholy that is undeniably there. Again, one has to wonder how much of this feeling for the work came via du Pré, who to my knowledge never performed the work, though she certainly could have; it was written and published years before her years of performance were forced to conclude.
The Naxos CD also features versions of two of Finzi’s single-movement piano concertante works that are similarly superb, the Ecologue (a short and mostly inward-looking, sad piece; and the more expansive Grand Fantasia and Toccata). The former is probably my favorite of the two, which were both originally intended as a larger concerto but the composer himself decided to split them and complete them as separate works; the Ecologue has a more consistent tone, not just because of its brevity but also because the longer piece seems to be a bit of a stylistic mashup which at times feels like its evoking Constant Lambert, Rachmaninoff, and/or Bach, let alone the singular voice of the actual composer. That shorter piece has two competitors on vinyl: Peter Katin with Handley again on Lyrita (1977) who lends it a distinctive and direct feeling, but more notable Howard Shelley with Richard Hickox (1987) on EMI — of course, because Finzi is another one of those composers who for whatever reason apparently only British labels have any interest in. Shelley’s version is far preferable, but it’s really just a filler at the end of an LP mainly dedicated to the Piano Concerto and choral Amore langueo by Howard Ferguson. Next to Ferguson, Peter Donohoe is equally as eloquent, if even perhaps a bit more so; this pianist seems to have a knack for taking works like this, underperformed and underrecognized, and raising them to the next level, very much leaving one wondering why they aren’t staples of the genre. (Donohoe accomplished this same feat in his justly famous recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, which most critics, and artists, write off as a totally uninteresting sequel to the great First.) What benefits Donohoe in the Finzi — as with Hugh in the Cello Concerto — is the much more involved, integrated, and dynamic playing of the ensemble, who are not just accompanists, but partners is the performance. If one partakes of CDs, or online streamers like idagio, this disc is the one to get; on vinyl there are equivalents, but this is really a desert island CD for me, and I don’t have many!
Not to be unfair to Shelley, here is a live performance with the London Mozart Players in which his overall more tranquil vision of the piece is a bit more vivis than the EMI record:
Speaking of which, it’s also interesting that some of Finzi’s shorter symphonic works, notably the orchestral suite after Love’s Labours Lost has no full competitor on vinyl; Boult, again on Lyrita, recorded three of the numbers from the suite, but not (inexplicably) the most memorable piece, the first one. Here there is absolutely not competitor to William Boughton and the English String Orchestra on Nimbus. The performance and acoustic are phenomenal; unfortunately for us vinyl lovers, this recording, still available on CD, was made right after the label had done away with vinyl; his earlier records of English works (Elgar and Vaughan Williams) are very much worth having. It does seem one has to go to idagio for the Love’s Labours, it’s not to be found on YouTube; the same seems to be the case for Alan Hacker’s Clarinet Concerto. You do have to register, but it’s free and very much worth it, there is no comparable curated archive of classical recordings anywhere else on the web, period. The Clarinet Concerto on that disc is also without peer; the Lyrita, coupled with the Ecologue mentioned above, is totally lackluster in comparison. And Finzi knew how to write for the instrument, which long ago I used to play; among his jauntier and less weighty works are the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, best heard on Chandos disc with de Peyer (who else) available on late vinyl or CD as part of an enjoyable anthology of English clarinet works.