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
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.