This pair of CDs
offers further examples of how pioneering
recordings by Lyrita have been overtaken
and yet not overtaken. These recordings
have been unavailable for so long
that perhaps their importance has
been forgotten. At the time they appeared
some of them may have been first recordings
though, characteristically, Lyrita
has always eschewed such banners as
"World Première Recording".
In recent years we’ve had the benefit
of fine CD versions of all these sets
of Finzi songs, most notably from
Hyperion and from Naxos. But at the
time these first appeared there were
far fewer Finzi recordings available.
have the choice – what luxury! – of
fine Finzi performances by several
singers, including James
Gilchrist and Roderick
and, in particular, this present set
comes into direct competition with
a Hyperion box entitled Earth and
Air and Rain (CDA 66161/2) in
which Martyn Hill (tenor) and Stephen
Varcoe (baritone), accompanied by
the late Clifford Benson, offer exactly
the same programme. However, as we
shall see, this Lyrita set is far
from outshone by more recent arrivals
in the catalogue.
As is the case with
the aforementioned Hyperion, we are
offered here all five of Finzi’s collections
of songs to words by Thomas Hardy.
I use the word "collections"
advisedly because only one, A Young
Man’s Exhortation, can be called
a cycle. In fact two of the collections,
Till Earth Outwears and I
Said to Love, were assembled after
Finzi’s death by his executors from
among the many individual, unpublished
songs that he had left behind. These
were published in 1958 as Opp. 19a
and 19b respectively.
With their penchant
for doing things properly Lyrita engaged
the composer and long-time friend
of Finzi, Howard Ferguson (1908-1999),
to play the piano parts for all these
recordings. I choose the words "play
the piano parts" very deliberately
because these are very much more than
"mere" accompaniments. Finzi
always wrote truly independent piano
parts and the pianist is a key protagonist
in these songs. Ferguson may not have
as great a reputation as a recital
accompanist as, say, Iain Burnside
or Clifford Benson but his contribution
to these present performances is immense.
Indeed, given his skill as a pianist
combined with his intimate knowledge
of and great empathy for Finzi’s music
one could fairly argue that his involvement
makes these performances uniquely
authoritative. Nor is his contribution
confined to the keyboard for the excellent
booklet note is by Ferguson also.
makes no reference in this note to
the role that he played in bringing
Till Earth Outwears and I
Said to Love before the public.
As one of Finzi’s executors he played
a major part in assembling these two
collections of songs and seeing them
through to publication. Furthermore,
he was the pianist at the first performance
of both, partnering Wilfred Brown
in the 1958 première of Till
Earth Outwears. The previous year
he took part in the first performance
of I Said to Love. On that
occasion the singer was John Carol
Case, so their reunion here adds an
extra degree of authenticity.
Recently I reviewed
John Carol Case’s Lyrita
disc of Let us Garlands
Bring and I felt obliged to
point out what seemed to me to be
a number of deficiencies in his singing
by the time he made that recording.
Though the date of that recording
was not specified I suspect that it
was later in his career than the performances
under consideration here for I find
no tonal problems with his singing
on these discs nor is his diction
as stilted as it sometimes appeared
in the case of Let us Garlands
Bring. Robert Tear is another
singer whose voice I came to find
less and less appealing as his career
progressed. His tone seemed to me
to acquire an unwelcome beat but I
don’t find that to be an issue here.
Both of those singers are well known,
not least through fairly extensive
discographies. By contrast Neil Jenkins
is perhaps less familiar to the general
public today. It’s some years since
I can recall hearing him though he
still pursues a very active career,
these days not just as a singer but
also as a conductor and musicologist.
His performance of A Young Man’s
Exhortation offers a timely reminder
of his accomplishments as a singer.
It’s a nice coincidence that the appearance
of these discs right at the end of
2007 neatly coincided with the fortieth
anniversary of his London debut recital.
John Carol Case has
the lion’s share of the singing on
these discs. He’s in excellent voice
for Before and after Summer.
His diction is crystal clear at all
times – though he never sounds mannered
– and the voice is evenly and pleasingly
produced. He responds excellently
to Hardy’s frequent changes of mood
within a poem, such as in ‘The Self-unseeing’.
Comparing him with Stephen Varcoe
I find that his singing is consistently
more characterful. I think it also
helps that Carol Case is recorded
somewhat more closely than Varcoe.
Varcoe’s voice is naturally lighter
than Carol Case’s but the older singer
seems to bring much more to these
songs. In the magnificent ‘Channel
Firing’ Howard Ferguson establishes
a tremendously eerie atmosphere right
at the start – though Clifford Benson,
for Varcoe, is strong on atmosphere
also. Carol Case’s delivery is superbly
characterful. Varcoe, though musical,
doesn’t probe as deeply and the faster
tempo that he and Benson employ does
not suit the music as well as that
in Carol Case’s account, where there’s
greater breadth. The extra degree
of mystery and power that Carol Case
and Ferguson bring to this song makes
it no contest, I fear.
timbre and style is better suited
to ‘Amabel’ but even here I find that
Carol Case and his partner offer just
a bit more, putting more lilt and
lift into the rhythms. Consistently
Carol Case really sings off the
words – note, for example, his emphasis
on the words "fatuous fires"
in the fourth stanza of ‘He abjures
Love’. Varcoe also emphasises those
words but nowhere near as effectively.
Carol Case gives us a really thoughtful
reading of the final stanza of this
song and for all his musicianship
Varcoe doesn’t really match him.
In the other two
baritone collections comparisons generally
favour Carol Case also. In I Said
to Love he really catches the
still ambience of a bleak, chilly
February day in ’At Middle-Field Gate
in February’. That said, the rather
still, withdrawn approach of Varcoe
strikes me as equally valid. ‘For
Life I had never cared greatly’ seems,
glance, to be a fairly
easygoing song but Carol Case gets
under the skin of the words and makes
one realise that this is a deceptive
song. The final song in the set, from
which the collection takes its title,
is one in which, as Diana McVeagh
says, Finzi displays "unusual
vigour and defiance". This is
just what we hear from Carol Case
and his greater vocal power gives
him an undoubted edge over Varcoe.
In Earth and Air
and Rain Carol Case offer further
insights. Listen, for example, to
what he does with the word "magic"
in the third verse of ‘When I set
out for Lyonesse’. The word appears
twice, but its use by Hardy and treatment
by Finzi is different on both occasions
and Carol Case conveys that splendidly.
I like Stephen Varcoe’s simple, direct
way with ‘So I have fared’’, with
its somewhat contrived double rhymes.
Carol Case is more forthright here
yet he also points the words with
more purpose. I also like the wistful
way in which Varcoe delivers ‘To Lizbie-Brown’,
though Carol Case does it well too.
Carol Case has splendid bite in ‘Rollicum-rorum’
and offers a dramatic and intense
reading of ’The Clock of the Years’.
Finally, the thoughtful, expressive
account of ‘Proud Songsters’ is a
fine conclusion to Carol Case’s excellent
performance of these songs.
If I have a distinct
preference for John Carol Case in
the baritone songs matters are by
no means as clear-cut in the two sets
of tenor songs. Robert Tear is on
pretty good form for Till Earth
Outwears. There’s vibrato in evidence
but not to an extent that I find as
troubling as in his later recordings.
He always had a tendency to put pressure
on top notes, particularly when singing
loudly, but though that happens sometimes
in this performance it’s not too great
a distraction. In fact there’s much
to admire in his singing, not least
the way he delivers the very difficult
quiet high-lying line at the words
"O not again Till Earth outwears"
in ‘In Years defaced.’ However, Martyn
Hill on the Hyperion set has a lighter
voice and he floats this line even
more appealingly. In general Hill’s
voice sounds more natural and easily
produced than Tear’s and overall his
timbre is more to my taste. Hill employs
less vibrato and high notes seem to
come more easily to him. This is not
to criticise Tear – the voices are
quite different – but perhaps Hill
is more suited to Finzi’s music. Both
singers offer fine readings of ‘It
never looks like Summer’. Hill is
light and easy in his delivery but
neither he nor Clifford Benson underplays
the feeling. Tear, though, excels
as well and perhaps he and Ferguson
extract just a bit more from the song.
The mysterious first stanza of ‘At
a lunar Eclipse’ is superbly done
by Tear and Ferguson. Their performance
is pregnant with atmosphere and Tear
employs a quiet head voice that I’d
quite forgotten was in his vocal armoury.
He and Ferguson build the second stanza
expertly and theirs is a tremendous
performance though Hill and Benson
are also very good in this song. Tear
also sings the last song, ‘Life laughs
onwards’ very well and, once again,
perhaps finds just a little bit more
in the music than does Hill.
Hill’s rival in A
Young Man’s Exhortation is Neil
Jenkins, who sings with an attractive,
clear voice. He surmounts Finzi’s
high tessitura with a little more
ease than Robert Tear. Jenkins does
‘Budmouth Dears’ well, his singing
keen and light. This is a real tongue-twister,
out of the same mould as ‘Rollicum-rorum’,
and Jenkins’s excellent diction serves
him well. Hill is equally successful
in this regard but what tips the balance
in his favour is the uninhibited ring
with which he delivers the exultant
high note at the end of each verse.
In complete contrast to that extrovert
setting, the first verse of ‘The Comet
at Yell’ham’ is strange and remote.
Jenkins does it very well but Hill
is even more acute, employing his
head voice quite marvellously – perhaps
the fact that he’s recorded a bit
more distantly than Jenkins helps
the ambience in passages such as this?
There’s a striking interpretative
contrast in the second stanza of this
song. Hill sustains the remote mood
throughout whereas Jenkins becomes
rather more forthright.
Jenkins and Ferguson
perform the opening of ‘Shortening
Days’ most atmospherically and they
do the Holstian march of the second
verse very well. However, Hill is
even more withdrawn and inward at
the start, conveying a real autumnal
feel. He and Benson employ a more
specious – and daring – tempo and
it pays off. They build the second
verse marvellously and the ring in
Hill’s voice on the final word – "press"
– is thrilling. I like the wistfulness
in Jenkins’s singing of ‘The Sigh’.
The final song, ‘The Dance continued’,
brings frequent changes of mood and
Jenkins gives a splendid performance
to round off the cycle in style. Mind
you, Hill also sings this exquisite
So, on balance my
preference in the two tenor sets would
be for Martyn Hill. But both Robert
Tear and Neil Jenkins offer many insights
and lots of fine singing. All three
singers are well in tune with Finzi’s
I find it impossible
– and invidious – to choose between
the two pianists. Perhaps on occasion
the all-round experience of Clifford
Benson as a recital accompanist pays
greater dividends but there are many
places where Ferguson’s unique knowledge
of Finzi and his music produces a
moment of insight or rapport that
is quite special. Suffice to say that
both pianists are splendid partners
for their singers.
An important factor
for some collectors may be the recorded
sound. On the Hyperion set the singers
are set further back in the acoustic.
I feel that this works to Martyn Hill’s
benefit sometimes but it is not so
advantageous for Stephen Varcoe. On
the Lyrita set the singers are more
forwardly recorded and I think this
works better. In fact the Lyrita sound
is consistently clear, pleasing and
satisfying in every way.
here is very good. All the texts are
supplied and the note by Howard Ferguson
is excellent. Hyperion’s documentation
scores in one respect in that, where
known, the date of composition for
every song is given. That’s quite
important since Finzi tended to gather
together in his song collections compositions
from various stages in his career.
In his note Howard
Ferguson has this to say: "Finzi
always had an instinctive feeling
for the voice, in spite of the fact
that he himself could never be persuaded
to sing. He had, too, a remarkable
faculty for sensing the essence of
a poem and recreating it in terms
of music." The validity of that
judgement is displayed time and again
throughout this fine pair of CDs.
These performances have most certainly
not been overtaken by subsequent recordings.
They offer as fine and important a
listening experience as they did when
first they were issued on LP and their
reappearance on CD is cause for rejoicing.
This set is indispensable for all
admirers of Finzi’s music and it should
be equally self-recommending to all
lovers of English song.
also review by Rob Barnett