Melancholy lingers about much of Gerald Finzi’s oeuvre. The sadness of his early life contributed, as did his later ill health. Finzi’s music is often that of sorrow though, and as this magnificent new disc reminds us, it also included the heroically celebratory and even buoyantly joyful.
Stephen Layton leads one of the best choral ensembles in the world for this repertoire: the choir of Trinity College Cambridge. And he wisely records the works with organ accompaniment in Hereford Cathedral, where the acoustics and organ radiantly support the singers.
Finzi’s huge Magnificat Opus 36 was written for Christmas vespers rather than an evensong, and this explains why there is no Gloria and no Nunc Dimittis. It is a substantial, absorbing work, with a particularly dramatic passage on ‘‘He hath set down the mighty’’.
The two best-known Finzi choral works for the Christian church – Finzi was in fact an agnostic of Jewish background – are here: Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice (1946) and God is Gone Up (1951). With Trinity choir’s attention to detail and unaffected clarity – the top line in particular is a kind of perfection – these famous works glow. And it is a nice touch that Layton adds brass and percussion to God is Gone Up. Perhaps an audacious addition but, it turns out, convincing.
The secular works include the Seven Poems of Robert Bridges (1934-7), which are captivating, like Holst’s settings of texts from Tennyson’s The Princess. Layton’s exactness here is remarkable: the “t” at the end of “patient”, to give a single example, exemplifies understated precision.
It takes a great deal of skill to get right the approach to top notes which involve a leap. It is easy to sound too mathematically exact and even easier to ‘‘scoop’’. Layton’s choir does neither but achieves the most expressive fractional lead-in to the high notes. Accomplished singing.
Two other features must be mentioned about the quality of this recording. First is the superb setting of the Nunc Dimittis by David Bednall, in response to the missing canticle from Finzi’s Opus 36. It is busy but rewarding. Answering to Finzi’s tonal shifts and vocal range, this is captivating: the insistent ‘‘The glory [of thy people Israel]’’ unmissable.
The harmonies of ‘‘Israel’’ itself are, taken even on their own, an apt tribute to Finzi’s aural imagination.
And it is not always that the liner notes for a recording need mention. But these here are provided by none other than Francis Pott, the celebrated British composer, and are beautifully done.