Romance for string Orchestra, Op.11
Dies Natalis, Op.8
Sonata for string orchestra
Toby Spence (tenor)
Jonathan Morton (violin)
Recorded 13 October 2007 in Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: February 2008
CD No: WIGMORE HALL LIVE
Duration: 64 minutes
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) was born into a comfortably-off family of Jewish-Italian descent in St John’s Wood, London. After his father died in 1908, the family moved to Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1914, where he studied with Ernest Farrar until 1917, then with Edward Bairstow at York Minster. Finally, in 1922, he moved to Painswick in Gloucestershire with his mother and the West Country became his spiritual home and, as it did for many English composers.
Romance is written in an arch, starting quietly, building to an impassioned climax and returning to its beginnings. Although it is a miniature it stands proudly alongside the best in the profoundly-English canon of works for string orchestra. The Scottish Ensemble does it proud; the group is made up of a dozen players playing with tight ensemble with the result that the textures of the piece are transparent yet well-nourished.
Within the space of a few years Finzi lost his father and three brothers, after which Farrar, who had become a dear friend, was killed on active-service during the First World War. For consolation he turned to and was inspired by poetry, including William Wordworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” and Thomas Traherne whose bittersweet writings on the innocence of a new-born child’s outlook on the world he used in “Dies Natalis”, a cantata for high voice and strings. The premiere was to have taken place at the Three Choirs Festival in 1939 but was cancelled due to the outbreak of war. The first performance took place at Wigmore Hall, the venue for this recording, on 26 January 1940, with soprano Elsie Suddaby and the Maurice Miles String Orchestra.
After a substantial instrumental ‘Intrada’, the singer enters with such magic with the words “Will you see the infancy…” by which time the exalted quality of this composition is in no doubt. Toby Spence’s rendition is excellent, using the palette of rapture and wonder in the words to the full, and bringing out the dance rhythms in ‘The Rapture’ effectively. He is balanced naturally across the horseshoe arrangement that Scottish Ensemble uses and the whole is presented in a warm and intimate acoustic.
William Walton (1902-1983) wrote his (Second) String Quartet during 1945 and 1946 for the Blech String Quartet. (Leader Harry Blech went on to found the London Mozart Players.) After a request from Sir Neville Marriner, Walton arranged the string Quartet as Sonata for string orchestra, with Sir Malcolm Arnold responsible for transcribing the last movement under Walton’s supervision. The transcription involved some shortening of the quartet’s first movement, something Walton was at first reluctant to do. The final published version from 1973 is performed here.
Throughout the piece, but most effectively at the start, the composer juxtaposes passages for solo strings with the full set, and the original’s passages of ‘orchestral’ writing are more fully realised in this version. Walton was concerned that his more intricate writing would become muddied in the transcription and took pains to avoid this – the result is one of the most successful metamorphoses from quartet to orchestral piece in the repertoire.
While the forces used here are fewer than Walton asks for in his score – a minimum of 16, preferably 21 – the performance is not compromised by this; the excellent ensemble of Scottish Ensemble ensures the work has the heft it deserves and, as with the Finzi pieces, the resulting clarity of textures particularly in the more febrile passages has its own rewards.
The recording quality is excellent, very clear without chilliness. Each piece is followed by applause, though the audience is hardly noticeable during the performances. Another gem in the Wigmore Hall Live catalogue.