Transformations: Words and Music [Hardy & Finzi]

A young man’s exhortation

John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Iain Burnside (piano) with Harriet Walter (reader)

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 13 February, 2009
Venue: Kings Place Hall One, London

John Mark Ainsley. Photograph: Marc Eskenazi“If I have seen one thing it is the passing preciousness of dreams” more than any other line seems to crystallise both Thomas Hardy’s thoughts and Gerald Finzi’s impetus to set his poems in “A young man’s exhortation” – and how very finely John Mark Ainsley sang it, and indeed all of this wistful, sometimes-troubled but always atmospheric music.

This was an unusual recital, combining Finzi’s work with performances of poems from a vast range of styles, given by the wonderful Harriet Walter, who despite being fixed in my mind forever as the superbly ghastly Fanny in the movie of “Sense and Sensibility”, nevertheless managed to make me forget her beating up on Lucy Steele as she evoked melancholy, resentment, anger and mirth by turns.

You can always rely on Iain Burnside to put together something different to the run of the mill ‘Liederabend’ and for those of us (and I’m sure we are many) who still miss “Voices” (on BBC Radio 3), his various concerts at Kings Place are a small consolation. This one juxtaposed Finzi’s settings of Hardy with sometimes-movingly relevant poems, “Under the Waterfall” being the perfect example, with some rather more tangential works, yet all given with perfect symmetry and commitment.

“A young man’s exhortation” is Finzi’s only true song-cycle, setting his favourite poet in music which enables both tenor and pianist to revel in the blend of melancholy and bittersweet joy which words and music have created. The mood changes from the ecstatic ‘Exalt and crown the hour’ to the resignation of ‘Regret not me’, and the balance Finzi achieves between uninhibited emotion and fine restraint is ideal for Ainsley’s voice and personality. His diction, phrasing, musicality, and sensitivity to the texts, put him in a class of his own. Iain Burnside’s ever-supportive playing made as eloquent a case for Finzi’s music as the singing.

This was my first concert at Kings Place, and I think it will take some getting used to – the vast, echoing atrium does not appeal, nor does the view into the offices of the “Guardian” newspaper with its kindergarten-style signage. However, the concert hall itself is a joy to sit in, recalling the wonderful Angelica-Kauffmann-Saal in Schwarzenberg – I can give no higher praise. The audience though was small. My impression is that the planning so far has been a bit too fussy, leaving patrons confused as to what’s on offer. Perhaps in future things can be slimmed down a little, which should not dim the brightness of the obvious enthusiasm of the venue but might encourage more Londoners to give the place a try.

  • Kings Place is at 90 York Way, King’s Cross, London N1 9AG
  • Box office: 0844 264 0321
  • Kings Place

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