FINZI: Clarinet Concerto / Five Bagatelles / Three Soliloquies / Romance (Howard Griffiths/ Lesley Hatfield/ Northern Sinfonia/ Robert Plane) (Naxos: 8.553566)
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Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Gerald Finzi belongs to a generation ofEnglish composers that has, until recently, suffered some neglect, His music istonal and attractive, firmly based in English traditions to which thedescriptive adjective 'pastoral' has been applied, in addition to moreopprobrious epithets from some quarters. Born into a family of Italian Jewishorigin, Sephardic on his father's side and, less happily, belonging to theAskenazim tradition on his mother's, rooted rather in Germany than in thelong-established Sephardic connection with England, Finzi was born, theyoungest of five children, in London in 1901. His father died in 1909 and hewas brought up by his mother, his three brothers dying in close succession, theyoungest as a war-time airman in 1918. Finzi and his mother had meanwhile movedfrom London to Harrogate, where he was able to study music with Ernest Farrar,a former pupil of Stanford who had worked in Germany and was at the timeorganist at Christ Church in Harrogate. Farrar's connection with composersassociated with the revival of English music in the early years of thetwentieth century had a lasting influence on Finzi, felt all the more afterFarrar's death in action in 1918. Farrar had been nearer to his own age, only33 when he died. Finzi's next teacher represented a much more conservative andformal tradition. Edward Bairstow, a Yorkshireman, had been appointed organistat York Minster in 1913, a position he held until his death in 1946. A pupil ofHenry Farmer and, as an organist, of Frederick Bridge, he remained a pillar ofthe English cathedral tradition, his stricter teaching of less relevance to hispupil.
It was, it may be supposed; in pursuit ofthe spirit that had inspired Vaughan Williams and Holst, Parry and Elgar, thatFinzi moved in 1922 to Gloucestershire, his compositions at this time largelyconsisting of songs, settings of Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy.
His period in the Cotswolds broughtcontact with the composer Herbert Howells. In 1925, on the advice of theconductor Adrian Boult, he took lessons in counterpoint from R. 0. Morris,whose pupils included Edmund Rubbra and Howard Ferguson, moving then to London,where he had personal contact with a wider circle of young musicians. Hisfriendship with Ferguson and with Rubbra remained of great importance to him,as was the encouragement he received from Vaughan Williams, Hoist and Bliss. Itwas this last who seems to have procured for him, in 1930, work at the RoyalAcademy of Music, teaching second-study composition students the elements ofcounterpoint and harmony one day a week. During this period in London hiscompositions had varied success. His Violin Concerto, written for SybilEaton, proved intractable and after a first partial performance it was revisedand completed, to be heard under Vaughan Williams in 1928. His attempted PianoConcerto offered still further difficulties and was not completed, servingas the source for later compositions.
In 1933 Finzi married the artist JoyceBlack and after a period living in Hampstead they moved to the country, thistime to Wiltshire. In 1939 they moved again to Ashmansworth on a Hampshirehill-top, near Newbury, having bought a farm-house that they replaced with abuilding well adapted to their own requirements. Retirement from London allowedFinzi to live a relatively simple life, concentrating now on composition, onhis continuing literary interests and on his study of earlier English music, inparticular that of the eighteenth century. In the English countryside, where hewas able to indulge an interest in apple- growing, he was in close touch withthe roots that he had adopted as his own and that were an essential basis ofhis work as a composer. Contact with the Three Choirs Festival brought thecomposition of what remains his best known composition, Dies Natalis.
Although Finzi had distanced himself fromhis Jewish identity, he nevertheless was bound to be affected by the events inGermany in the 1930s. The war brought inevitable disruption and he was forcedto return to London, working there throughout the war at the Ministry of WarTranspon. Although there was relatively little time for music, there was, by wayof compensation, a salary, although the Newbury String Players, the amateurorchestra he had established in Newbury in 1940, could still occupy weekendswhen he was able to escape to the country. Compositions from this period arefew, although the Five Bagatelles date in pan from this time.
Released from his war-time duties in 1945,Finzi was able to resume the life on which he had embarked five years before.
The Newbury String Players continued to flourish, often providing an outlet forcomposers whose work he found congenial. His own life as a composer prosperedwith a series of compositions that now found a hearing, notably his setting ofWordsworth's Intimations of Immortality on which he had embarked beforethe war and which he now completed, for a first performance in the Three ChoirsFestival in 1950 Finzi's health had never been good and the years before thewar had brought threats of tuberculosis. In 1951 he was found to be sufferingfrom Hodgkin's Disease and it was as a result of an infection consequent onthis immune deficiency that he died in September 1956, three weeks afterconducting his In terra pax at the Three Choirs Festival, where HowardFerguson' s Amore langueo, dedicated to the Finzis, had also beenperformed.
Finzi's Clarinet Concerto wascompleted in 1949 in response to a commission from the Three Choirs Festival,that year to be held in Hereford Cathedral, where it was performed withFrederick Thurston as the soloist and the strings of the London SymphonyOrchestra under the composer's direction. The first movement opens with astrong statement from the strings, leading to an Elgarian sequence, Astridently repeated octave figure precedes the solo entry with the principaltheme of the movement. The soloist leads to the second subject with a twooctave downward leap, before the lyrical theme proper is heard. There is arelatively short development section and a recapitulation that is followed by amore extended coda, an undemanding cadenza, inserted at the suggestion ofVaughan Williams, and a maestoso conclusion, the whole in a finelyconnected, thoroughly English rhapsodic style. Muted strings open the slowmovement, before the entry of the soloist. The orchestra then introduces themodal principal theme of the movement. allowing the clarinet to offer its ownrhapsodic comment. The music moves forward to a dramatic dynamic climax, themood of the opening finally restored, as the sound dies away. The final Rondoopens forcefully, leading to the cheerful principal theme from the clarinet,which frames extended episodes, with their reminiscences of motifs from thefirst movement.
Finzi wrote his Five Bagatelles forclarinet and piano for the clarinettist Pauline Juler, for whom he hadoriginally intended the Clarinet Concerto, forestalled by her marriageand pregnancy and subsequent withdrawal from a concert career. The Bagatelles,completed as a set in 1943, were subsequently arranged for clarinet andstrings by Lawrence Ashmore. The highly characteristic Prelude has anexuberant opening and gently contrasting middle section, ending in a slightlymenacing climax, after which the first material returns. The tenderly lyrical Romanceis followed by the simplicity of Carol that seems to have had itso