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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/50) [10:03]
Grand Fantasia and Toccata, Op.38 (1928, rev. 1947/53) [13:28]
Paul Watkins (cello)
Louis Lortie (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2018, Watford Colosseum. DSD

Finzi’s Cello Concerto is a work I first came to admire through the pioneering Lyrita recording by the then-young Yo-Yo Ma – it must have been one of his first recordings - and Vernon Handley. That was some four decades ago and when the performance finally made it onto CD (review) I hastened to acquire it again in its silver disc format. Since then we’ve had the luxury of two other recordings, by Raphael Wallfisch and by Tim Hugh (review); I’ve not heard the latter. The Wallfisch recording, also conducted by Handley, was issued by Chandos (CHAN 8471) and now the same label offers us the concerto’s fourth recording.

As Andrew Burn points out in his most useful notes, the concerto has its origins in sketches that date from the 1930s but it was only in 1951, after Finzi had been diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, that he began work in earnest. The slow movement was written first and the final impetus came with a commission from Sr John Barbirolli for a major work for the 1955 Cheltenham Festival. The concerto is unparalleled in Finzi’s output, particularly in terms of its scale and ambition: as Diana McVeagh commented in her note for the Yo-Yo Ma recording, “nothing in Finzi’s output quite prepares one for the force and mastery of his Cello Concerto”. The very opening is big, bold and almost angry, qualities that come over well under Sir Andrew Davis. That said, I find Vernon Handley’s handling of this opening on the Lyrita disc is even darker and despite the excellent Chandos engineering, the imposing tam-tam crash registered more potently in the Lyrita sound from some 40 years earlier. Bold and dramatic the opening may be, but the second subject – at about 4:00 in the Watkins/Davis performance – is more relaxed and flowing; this is much closer to the Finzi voice with which we’re so familiar. Paul Watkins plays with mastery throughout the movement; he’s commanding when he needs to be and he’s at least as persuasive in the many lyrical passages. Davis conducts very well and I like the urgency that he often brings to the music – for example in the lead-up to the big cadenza. That cadenza (11:43-15:18) is primarily a rumination on what has gone before and Watkins brings it off marvellously.

The slow movement, the first to be written, was composed in the immediate aftermath of Finzi’s leukaemia diagnosis but surely the listener would be unaware of that, such is the serenity and beauty of so much of the music’s course. No one, in my experience, has described the movement’s essential simplicity of utterance better than Diana McVeagh in her note accompanying the Ma recording: “Lapped in the basic security of key, in the continuous unrolling of suspensions and unvarying tread, such passages are musical intimations of immortality that, like folksongs or lullabies, touch a need and a response deeper than reason.” Watkins and Davis give a heartfelt account of the movement; I like the sense of flow they achieve and Watkin’s poetic playing is inspired. That said, Vernon Handley adopts a steadier core tempo in the Ma performance – and in the Wallfisch account, too – and thereby he seems to me to bring out an element of dignified stoicism that rather eludes Davis. Ma’s playing is very eloquent. Finzi’s finale is primarily high-spirited and genial. In their athletic account of the movement I think Watkins and Davis capture the music’s spirit.

Finzi’s Cello Concerto is a glorious work and it deserves to be far more frequently played than is the case. I must admit that it’s been a year or two since I last listened to it and it’s been a joy to reacquaint myself with it via this distinguished new recording. However, Yo-Yo Ma’s splendid performance is by no means displaced: I’ve often wondered if he ever returned to the work after making the recording all those years ago.

The other soloist is Louis Lortie, playing two works that were originally composed in the 1920s and intended for a piano concerto that was never completed. Both were revised later in Finzi’s life. The Eclogue is a beautiful work. The music is serene and Bachian yet it has inner strength as well as limpid beauty. Lortie’s performance is poised and elegant and he receives admirable support from Davis and the strings of the BBCSO. The Grand Fantasia and Toccata is an unusual piece. After the briefest of orchestral introductions, the bulk of the Fantasia (to 5:46) is a piano solo, which displays a clear debt to Baroque forms. Lortie plays this very well. The Toccata (from 7:48) is very lively and dynamic – I think Andrew Burn is right to suggest that at times Finzi “rubs shoulders” with Walton. Lortie and the BBCSO give a sparkling performance. A brief return, by the orchestra, to the material of the Fantasia provides some structural unity before the work achieves a helter-skelter end.

I suspect that most people, if asked, would say that New Year’s Eve is an occasion for a party and celebration. Not so for Finzi, perhaps. Andrew Burn quotes a letter he wrote to Robin Milford in which he said “I love New-Year’s eve, though I think it’s the saddest thing of the year”. That view no doubt colours his Nocturne (New Year Music). The piece begins and ends with what Burn refers to as “contrapuntal mists evoking the chill depths of winter darkness”. For the most part the piece is solemn in tone and inward-looking and though in the middle there’s a noble tune this, too, is solemn rather than celebratory. It’s a most interesting short piece and Davis puts it across very well indeed.

This is an excellent Finzi collection and anyone interested in his music should investigate it, especially on account of the very fine performance of his eloquent Cello Concerto. Chandos have recorded the music with their customary expertise. I listened to this SACD using the stereo layer and I found that in all the solo pieces the balance between orchestra and soloist was very satisfactory. The overall sound is rich and detailed. Andrew Burn’s notes are very helpful.

John Quinn

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf


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