In Years Defaced (orchestrations by the composer, Christian Alexander, Colin Matthews, Anthony Payne, Jeremy Dale Roberts and Judith Weir)
Concerto for Small Orchestra and Solo Violin
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Tasmin Little (violin)
City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: August 2001
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 9888
Strange though it may seem, Edmund Rubbra seems to have caused more of a stir as far as CD releases are concerned in this centenary year that he shares with Gerald Finzi. Finzi’s music has become much better known and there is much less of it, but I was expecting rather more interest from record companies.
Bearing this in mind, it is unfortunate that I feel unable to give this new release a warmer welcome. The song cycle, In Years Defaced, was an interesting idea and all the composers provide idiomatic and effective orchestrations – especially Christian Alexander’s for the beautiful early song ’Tall Nettles’ (setting Edward Thomas), full of Vaughan Williams-like arabesques, and, less surprising, considering his background in English romantic music, Anthony Payne’s orchestration of ’Proud Songsters’.
However, all this still begs the question – why? The other big problem is that Finzi intended these songs for the darker, more sonorous baritone voice; even in these transposed versions I just cannot get used to the lighter tenor of John Mark Ainsley, however beautifully he sings them. Further, at least for me, these six songs do not make a unified cycle; it seems that the chosen composers were asked to choose a song and orchestrate it (!) – not the best way to get a satisfying set it seems to me.
In the last few years we seem to have developed an unhealthy interest in poking around a composer’s bottom drawer looking for “lost treasures” – Delius, Britten, Elgar, amongst others, have all suffered at the hands of, no doubt, well-meaning individuals – now Finzi has his centenary “celebrated” in the same misguided way.
The Violin Concerto is Finzi’s earliest extended instrumental work, written for Sybil Eaton, with whom he had recently fallen in love. The beautiful slow movement is all that survived Finzi’s self-criticism; this later appeared as the Introit for violin and small orchestra – Finzi always found slow movements easier to write than fast ones and this becomes evident fairly quickly in the premiere recording of the full concerto. The first movement is an uninspired, rattling, neo-classical toccata – a sort of Vaughan Williams meeting Stravinsky via Bach – whilst the enforced jollity of the last movement ’Hornpipe’, clocking in at just over three minutes, reveals a composer quite literally scraping around for something to do!
The composer withdrew the first and last movements – but, of course, other people claim to know better. The valiant advocacy of Tasmin Little cannot hide the paucity of this piece’s invention; Finzi knew perfectly well what he was doing – why can’t people leave well alone?
The two saving graces, at least as far as the music is concerned (the performances and recording are of Chandos’s customary high standard), are the two short pieces for strings, which show Finzi at his most touching and affecting.