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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Cello Concerto, Op. 40 (1951-1955) [37:31]
Eclogue, Op.10 (late 1920s, rev. 1952)
Nocturne (New Year Music), Op.7 (1926 rev. 1940s, 1950) [10:03]
Grand Fantasia and Toccata, Op.38 (1928, rev. 1947, 1953) [13:28]
Paul Watkins (cello)
Louis Lortie (piano),
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2018, Watford Colosseum

The opening bars tell the story. Sir Andrew Davis drives the BBC Symphony into the orchestral introduction with trenchant power; brass baleful, percussion prominent in the opening paragraphs, a sense of brooding intensity instantly established. Thus is Finzi’s Cello Concerto launched with convincing intensity. In his turn Paul Watkins plays with equal commitment and trenchancy though he finds a flexible lyricism to introduce the first notes of warmth. He’s very secure at the top of the register, maintaining tone and intonation fearlessly. In fact, fearlessness is a watchword for this performance as a whole, whether in the first movement cadenza or Davis’s astute ear for balance. And when the baleful writing returns at the end of the first movement, one knows, without doubt, that one been through a strong ceaseless narrative.

Watkins and Davis don’t take the beautiful slow movement too slowly. They avoid the suggestion that its lyricism is in any way threnodic; rather, it’s taken at a forward-looking tempo faster even than Tim Hugh’s with Howard Griffith on Naxos; and Hugh was himself a lot faster than Wallfisch and Handley on Chandos’ earlier recording of the concerto. Both Hugh and especially Watkins are two minutes faster in this movement than the premiere commercial recording, by Yo-Yo Ma and Handley, beautiful though their recording was, and is. But what is especially admirable about this latest recording is the attention to detail: the orchestral counter-themes, the lines for trumpet and for flute, for example, amid a number of other examples. So, too, in the finale, rightly given a buoyant, almost jubilant mien and taken at a tempo that recalls Hugh’s recording, though in more detailed and richer sound.

This is a reading of candour and expressive depth and a highly distinguished performance.

Louis Lortie is the other soloist and he achieves the required semplice in the Eclogue through avoidance of rubato, instead concentrating on a firm line. This unwillingness to inflate the work beyond its natural limits is admirable but can come at the cost of a want of delicacy and introspective beauty. This, at least, is the way Peter Katin plays it with Handley and they are noticeably slower, more limpid, and romanticised, if you will. Katin’s verticality of sound and colour is invariably deeply moving and I’m afraid I can’t pretend that Lortie offers a comparable experience for me. The bipartite Grand Fantasia and Toccata, the first dating from 1928, but subsequently revised, and the Fantasia from 1953, and stitched together, is a much more self-consciously extrovert affair and has the advantage of Lortie’s dextrous playing and Davis’s canny orchestral moulding.

The final work belongs to the orchestra, the Nocturne, subtitled New Year Music. The work itself is known from Boult’s Lyrita recording and from Neville Marriner’s with the ASMF but Davis captures its sense of loving ambivalence, from the opening’s walking basses onwards to the noble central panel that swells up exultantly.

The SACD recording captures a considerable dynamic range and the major work, in particular, emerges all the more powerfully as a result.

Jonathan Woolf

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