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How they went Ungrudgingly

19 December 2014

Roderic Dunnett hears a little-known choral work by Gerald Finzi


IT IS not so often that new or little-known items by the composer Gerald Finzi (1901-56) emerge. This is partly because he is admirably served by the Finzi Trust and its offshoot, the Finzi Friends. Finzi did stalwart work in retrieving and championing other composers, most notably Ivor Gurney, and he has himself been relatively well served and thoroughly championed. Even minor instrumental pieces have been brought into the public domain.

There was surprise and delight, therefore, in discovering that the City of London Choir, under its conductor, Hilary Davan Wetton, has not only readdressed, but also recorded, Finzi's early Requiem da Camera, a 20-minute work evolved scarcely five years after the Great War, but not heard till the 1990s.

It was inspired by the death in battle of Finzi's beloved teacher Ernest Farrar (1885-1918), and into it Finzi injects the sadness of war, not by echoing Owen's "monstrous anger of the guns", but by implying war while underlining the rural idyll from which military service in the trenches separated the men.

A Prelude, darkly led in by cello, then sombre, searching clarinet and oboe, makes sly allusion to "Loveliest of Trees", the Housman setting by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who was just five days younger than Farrar and was likewise killed in the war. (The latter's The Banks of Green Willow, surprisingly dramatic in places, with finely worked crescendos from the London Mozart Players, and a beautifully managed final fade, had opened the concert.)

Then Finzi sets three poets. He was an inspired chooser of words. All three passages are apt and relevant; and it is no surprise that Thomas Hardy, being the poet he most loved to set, is one of them:

"War's annals will cloud into night Ere their story die" is Hardy's conclusion to "Only a man harrowing clods", a rustic poem whose plodding bass gives way to the briefest of cello solos and several passages that foreshadow his ravishing solo cantata Dies Natalis. Hardy knew about other wars, not just the First World War. John Masefield actually entitled one of his weightier poems "August 1914": folds, valley, blue hills, "a rout of rooks", for which, in the longest movement, Finzi reserves canonic writing between upper and lower voices, and some especially fine a cappella detail, then exquisite woodwind for "the tilted stacks, the beasts in pen", as the farmsteads feel the "rumours and alarms" of war: "And knew, as we know, that the message meant The breaking off of ties, the loss of friends: Death, like a miser getting in his rent, And no new stones laid where the trackway ends." As they sadly leave "the well-loved Downs", Finzi's delightful, almost ironic string envoi ushers them to their likely end.

Cor anglais and bass clarinet both colour brief interludes within the final setting, of two stanzas by Wilfrid Gibson, which bewail "How they went Ungrudgingly, and spent Their all for us, loved too, the sun and rain . . .", while we who are left "feel the heartbreak in the heart of things".

Every small detail of Finzi's writing - woodwind, chuntering horn, or the sad echo in a lulling, unfife-like flute of the Last Post -tells a story.

This was a noble performance that captured the yearning, mixed with enchantment, of this rare work: not quite mature in design, but absorbing in its honesty. We owe this valuable new edition of the whole work, heard also on disc with Vaughan Williams and Gurney (Naxos 8.573426; the City of London Choir has already recorded Finzi's Christmas Cantata In Terra Pax on 8.572102), to the editor Christian Alexander.

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