Oh Fair To See – Songs of Gerald Finzi

0 of 5 stars

Oh Fair to See
Till Earth Outwears
A Young Man’s Exhortation

James Gilchrist (tenor) & Anna Tilbrook (piano)

Recorded in March 2004 at Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: June 2005
Duration: 63 minutes

Gerald Finzi’s songs seem to be enjoying a renaissance at the moment with three fine recent releases. “A Young Man’s Exhortation” is included on a Hyperion release by tenor Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles and baritone Roderick Williams’s release in Naxos’s “English Song Series” is proving popular. Then there’s this recording, three cycles performed by tenor James Gilchrist.

Gilchrist’s release comprises three cycles, the eponymous work and “Till Earth Outwears” (which were put together after Finzi’s death from unpublished songs), as well as “A Young Man’s Exhortation”. This cycle and “Till Earth Outwears” are settings of poems by Thomas Hardy; “Oh Fair to See” opens with Hardy’s “I say, I’ll seek her side” before presenting settings of Christina Rossetti, Edward Shanks, Ivor Gurney, Edmund Blunden and Robert Bridges.

Finzi’s settings are for the large part simple, elegant and extremely beautiful; his manner is often that used in setting sacred texts (which, in many ways, he was): agogic accents, subtle dissonance and changes in texture pluck out a word, add a more indirect commentary or steer a change in mood. Progressions scatter chorale prelude-like to elaborate an idea implicit in the text (“Transformations” from “A Young Man’s Exhortation”) or march sedately beneath an exquisite vocal line (“At a lunar eclipse” from “Till Earth Outwears”). Often, too, a new idea will be expressed by a stylistic change, as in the sweetly moving “To Joy”. In this poem by Edmund Blunden, written after the death of his five-month-old child Joy, a repeated minor chord tolls out before the accompaniment pushes gently forward (a now motherless child “thrust out alone/upon death’s wilderness”). The middle two lines are set in a more obvious funeral march, delicately ornamented (“Our tears fall, fall, fall – I would weep/My blood away to make her warm”). The mood of the first section then returns, lamenting the child “Who never went on earth one step”. The effect is akin to the cleansing of pain by tears, and very powerful indeed.

One could pluck out any of these songs and demonstrate them as examples of Finzi’s love and devotion to poetry and to sharing his experience of it with the listener, particularly that of his beloved Hardy. Gilchrist likewise shares this passion; his is a beautiful legato line through which vowels and consonants flicker and tremble, painted by an almost limitless timbral range. Nothing here is affected; the overwhelming sense of yearning for things lost which runs through most of Hardy’s work (and by extension Finzi’s settings, with their suspensions and long appoggiaturas), is ever present. Anna Tilbrook is the ideal accompanist, feeling the sense in every phrase and the freedom in chords that break free, momentarily, into arpeggios, like the loosening of long hair.

The booklet note is coherent and informative, and artists’ biographies and full texts are included. The recorded sound is faultless. A CD of innumerable treasures, one essential for any lover of English song – or of song in general.

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