FINZI:  Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 40.  Eclogue for Piano and Strings, Op. 10.  Grand Fantasia and Toccata, Op. 38.
Tim Hugh, cellist; Peter Donohoe, pianist; Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths, cond.

NAXOS 8.555766 (B) (DDD) TT:  62:09

These may surprise you. Gerald Finzi thought of himself as primarily a choral and vocal composer. Indeed, he distinguished himself as one of the great modern songwriters. As an instrumental composer, he showed far less assurance, taking decades to complete scores that he had put away in his desk drawer until inspiration struck. To a large extent, Finzi believed that inspiration produced great music, and he refused to release works that he felt less than his best or he considered himself to have "forced." These attitudes also made for a slender catalogue.

Finzi, of course, had to write the way he felt able to write, but I find worth considering whether his equation between inspiration and greatness universally holds true. It's probably true for a miniaturist or for a natural songwriter. Because room is so limited, the ideas had better be pretty interesting in themselves. Yet most symphonic works, even great symphonic works, aren't inspired all the time. A composer doesn't always come up with brilliant themes. Beethoven's "fate knocking at the door" in itself isn't terrifically inspired in the same way as the first theme in the finale of Brahms's first symphony. But Beethoven (as we know from the sketch books) through lots of hard work turns straw into gold. Indeed, much of the excitement of Beethoven's work, particularly noticeable in the late period, comes through in a sense of struggle between the composer and his materials. Essentially, Finzi couldn't get away from the idea that he had to start with gold.

By the end of his short life, however, Finzi had managed to produce three large concerted works: the clarinet concerto, the cello concerto, and the Grand Fantasia and Toccata. In the meantime, he failed to complete a piano concerto, and indeed the Grand Fantasia and Toccata and the Eclogue spring from that aborted work. He also gave up on a violin concerto but reworked the movements into orchestral miniatures. I find the clarinet concerto most true to his lyrical muse, where he is most truly himself, but the other works are not only interesting attempts to extend his idiom but gorgeous in their own right.

Some writers have marked in the cello concerto's opening a distinctly Elgarian tone, and I think this is fair. However, I also suspect that lurking behind this judgment is the belief that Finzi was essentially trying on something foreign to him -- putting on the Elgarian dog, so to speak. Yet, this attitude fails to consider how much Finzi's lyricism derives from composers like Elgar and Parry. Furthermore, Finzi gets lumped in with British pastoralists, who (as we all know) reacted against Elgar. It's true that Finzi admired Vaughan Williams's music and that the two composers often found themselves on each other's wavelength. But Vaughan Williams not only admired Elgar, he ticked off exactly what he got from the older man in a splendid essay "What Have We Learned from Elgar?" Consequently, the pastoral pigeonhole can't contain either composer, just as the "songwriter" label doesn't really fit Finzi, any more than it does FaurČ. Many, if not most, of Finzi's songs use at first glance "intractable" texts, such as the magnificent "Channel Firing" by Hardy or the "centuries" of Thomas Traherne. Their structures owe a great deal to the procedures of instrumental music, rather than "song" or "hymn" form. In a sense, we can say that Finzi often writes sonatas for voice.

What strikes me as unusual about the opening of the Finzi cello concerto, consequently, is not the idiom, but the tone of voice: fiery, passionate, perhaps even angry, with great rhetorical sweep. The opening gives way to a more typical Finzi mood of lyrical meditation, with extension by sequence that Finzi makes uniquely his own. A harmonic instability, or uneasiness, runs beneath the lyricism, however, and Finzi manages to transform his usual turns of phrase into complicated emotional territory. The emotional center of the movement -- very unusually -- can be found in the large cadenza for the solo cello. This isn't a spotlight for performer virtuosity (although it's hard) or for composer virtuosity in recapping themes (although it does that), but a kind of a confrontation with the self alone. It packs such an emotional wallop that Finzi can end the movement almost immediately, with a short, ominous rumble in the orchestra.

The second movement shows Finzi singing in his very personal way, familiar to those who know the Bridges part-songs or the Hardy song cycles. Its beauty will break your heart and, at twelve-and-a-half minutes serves to rebuke those who think Finzi "merely" a songwriter. Try to write a twelve-and-a-half minute song with this degree of "naturalness" or without obvious thematic manipulations and learn how hard this sort of thing really is.

A cadenza-like passage begins with plucked octaves and chords from the solo cello, heralding a mazurka-like main rondo theme. It's a movement both odd and endearing. Finzi had trouble with last movements. A don't-give-a-damn display of flash was foreign to his temperament as was any sort of emotional inflation. This movement comes across with more geniality, although a bit heavy, than one normally encounters in finales written after Beethoven. It reminds me a bit of the finale of the Brahms second piano concerto -- the same sort of cuddly dippiness, like making goo-goo eyes at a baby or a koala. The rondo can be a fairly loose form. The trick is to make episodes motifically relevant to the main theme. Finzi does very well indeed, breaking up the main idea into little bits and then riffing on the bits as the content of the episodes.

The Eclogue originally should have served as the slow movement to the piano concerto. He completed the first version in 1929, revised it as a stand-alone work in 1953, and gave it a deceptively low opus number. He never heard it played. Its intimacy gets to you right away, as does Finzi's very personal singing, immediately identifiable. Finzi seems to have no sense of a concert hall, at least in the beginning. The work opens with the solo piano playing what sounds like something from a Grade Three piano book. However, the piece little by little rises to a fairly high dynamic peak, which justifies the orchestra. For all the work's quiet, Finzi lays out a very bold path.

The Grand Fantasia (of Grand Fantasia and Toccata), first composed in 1928, would have opened Finzi's piano concerto, had not his then-teacher, R. O. Morris, persuaded him it was inappropriate as a concerto movement. Why, I have no idea -- perhaps a misguided classicism. It was, after all, the Twenties. Finzi revised the piece and added the toccata in 1953. Peter Katin premiered the work in that year. The Fantasia is indeed out-of-the-ordinary, beginning with an extended passage for soloist. One hears Finzian paraphrases of Bach, at least in the opening measures, but it quickly becomes all-Finzi, all the time. Finzi builds superbly over a long stretch to a thrilling entry of the full orchestra. Andrew Burns's liner notes suggest that the work should be viewed in the context of Twenties' neoclassicism and cite Holst, Bloch, and Stravinsky. It's a good suggestion, but I would also add that neoclassicism did not exclusively belong to the Twenties and indeed has Romantic ancestors. I would say that Finzi belongs more to this broader tradition, which gave us Liszt's Mozart paraphrases, Grieg's suite "Aus Holbergs Zeit," and Tchaikovsky's ”Mozartiana" orchestral suite, as well as Elgar's "Contrasts: The Gavotte A. D. 1700 and 1900." Like Grieg and Elgar, Finzi doesn't retail obvious classical tropes but writes his own music, alluding to classical forms along the way. Finzi's movement is so strong and so individual, the piano concerto becomes more and more a real loss. The Toccata, as I've said, Finzi added late and wrote relatively quickly. It's less idiosyncratic and may remind some listeners of Waltonian fizz. However, Finzi does show a real command of virtuosic writing, so we can't put its rarity in his output to mere inability. The join between the two sections is absolutely invisible. Finzi prepares for the Toccata so well (in an extended paragraph that ratchets up tension), you will find yourself considerably into it before you realize where you've landed -- an elaborate windup and a great fastball.

All of these works have received other recordings, some (naturally) no longer available. You can find the cello concerto on two separate Chandos CDs with Rafael Wallfisch and Vernon Handley, each coupled with a different cello work by Kenneth Leighton -- Veris gratia and the cello concerto. For the coupling, I prefer the cello concerto. Both piano works appeared on HNH with Katin and Handley. The Naxos CD, though different in approach, I find just as good for the works concerned. Wallfisch and Handley give a more elegant cello concerto, McHugh and Griffiths a rougher, more passionate one. I would say the same of Katin and Handley vs. Donohoe and Griffiths, although here I prefer the greater excitement of the Naxos account. It seems to risk large -- that the performance, through the hammering of the soloist, becomes misshapen. But the risk comes off. The performers toe the line without crossing it. I find the sound better on the Naxos than on the Chandos -- too much echo, and I suspect from the mixing board rather than from the hall.

S.G.S. (June 2002)