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R Moore
American Record Guide, December 2006

Naxos continues its English Song Series with this excellent Finzi program that includes the first recording of By Footpath and Stile, Opus 2, for baritone and string quartet. The texts of that and one other set are by Thomas Hardy, for whose poems Finzi had a great love. In a letter to·a friend he wrote of Hardy's Collected Poems, "If I had to be cut off from everything, that would be the one book I should choose." Song-writing was a major aspect of Finzi's compositional output, and these songs make his music very accessible to the listener. Williams sounds terrific in this music. His singing is thoughtfully nuanced, with a voice that is clean and clear, at once strong and gentle. One or two high notes sound a bit strained, but otherwise his voice is smooth and very lovely at all dynamic levels and pitches. His diction is exceptionally clear. Burnside's accompaniment is excellent, and the Sacconi Quartet plays beautifully. All performers show great sensitivity to the music. If you're a Finzi lover, you will want this. If you don't know Finzi's music, this is a fine introduction since it includes some of the composer's best songs performed most commendably. Informative notes and full texts.

Gwyn-Parry Jones
MusicWeb International, October 2006

If the unassuming, quintessentially English composer - despite Italian-Jewish genes! - Gerald Finzi had an obsession, it was with the poetry of Thomas Hardy. Hardy for him was, he once said, “…what the Bible must have been to Bunyan”, and he claimed to have felt a kinship with him from his earliest days. He never met the writer, but when Hardy died, there was a sale in Dorchester of his books and memorabilia. Finzi went down in hope, but most things were snapped up by dealers at prices the composer could not possibly match. However, he did come away with Hardy’s walking stick, something he treasured for the rest of his life. This wonderful CD the fifteenth volume in the Naxos English Song series is another important step in the process of establishing Finzi in his rightful place as one of the most important 20th century composers for the voice. There is here at least one great cycle (a term not to be used lightly) in Earth and Air and Rain, his op.15. This was first performed complete in 1943 at a National Gallery concert, sung by the baritone Robert Irwin, with Finzi’s friend the composer Howard Ferguson at the piano. To a Poet was not published as a song cycle during Finzi’s lifetime, but was assembled after his death from unpublished settings of various poets, a labour of love carried out by the composer’s widow and son, with the help of Howard Ferguson. It works as a cycle, and contains at least one magnificent song, the first of the group. By Footpath and by Stile, on the other hand, is the earliest of Finzi’s Hardy collections, and was completed in 1922. Unusually, the accompaniment is for string quartet rather than piano, maybe inspired by Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge of a decade or so earlier. I enjoyed very much the young baritone Roderick Williams’ previous Naxos CD, also of Finzi, which included two more splendid Hardy cycles, I said to Love, op.19b and Before and After Summer op.16. Williams has a fine, true voice, and sings with understanding but without mannerism, straightforwardly yet never missing a musical or verbal point of expression. His unaffected approach is matched and supported by the excellence of Iain Burnside at the keyboard. He is such a sensitive accompanist, yet makes a massive positive contribution, clearly relishing the beauty of many of Finzi’s piano parts. Earth and Air and Rain is a fascinating and, in many ways, devastating piece. It begins with a blithe evocation of early summer and its birdsong, Summer Schemes. Then we have the resolve of When I set out for Lyonesse, with its march-like tread and triumphant ending. Waiting both is Hardy’s dialogue with a star - interesting to compare this with Vaughan Williams’ The infinite shining heavens in his Songs of Travel - and its mystery is captured perfectly in this performance, with a wonderful vocal colouring at the word ‘change’ – ‘Till my change come’. The pivotal song in the cycle, coming after the exuberant satire of Rollicum-Rorum, is To Lizbie Browne. This is also one of the most beautiful love-songs in the English repertoire. It begins as simple reminiscence – ‘Dear Lizbie Browne, where are you now?’ – but gradually and subtly changes to a tragic sense of a missed opportunity – ‘ Touched never your lip with lip of mine. Lost Lizbie Browne’. The single hanging note in the piano at the end says everything. From there on, the cycle darkens perceptibly, moving through the horror of The Clock of the Years - an English Doppelgänger if ever there was one! - and the weird vision of In a churchyard, to the pensive autumnal mood of Proud Songsters, which reminds us that these birds singing so proudly were just a year ago nothing more than ‘…particles of grain, And earth, and air, and rain.’ Williams and Burnside bring the same authority to To a Poet, and the first song, setting James Elroy Flecker’s To a poet a thousand years hence brings a very fine performance from the duo, rising to a great climax at the words of the final stanza, ‘I send my soul through time and space to greet you. You will understand’. This is a most moving poem, and again, Finzi rises to its expressive challenge magnificently. Of the remaining songs, June on Castle Hill is perhaps the most atmospheric, with a particularly evocative piano part for ‘The sky throbs angrily As the laden bee Sails by…’ By Footpath and Stile, never recorded before, is early Finzi, composed when he was just twenty years old. Though immature in some respects, it still shows great assurance, as well as a powerful imaginative response to Hardy’s verse. The writing for the string quartet that supports the voice is always sympathetic, and sometimes quite daring, as in the spare lines of Where the picnic was, or the impressionistic opening of Voices from things growing in a churchyard. The best-known poem set in this group is The Oxen, which recounts the folk-legend that farm animals can be found kneeling on Christmas Eve. This is particularly interesting in that Vaughan Williams set this same poem in his Christmas cantata Hodie of 1953. Though VW had available the colours of a full orchestra, and uses his woodwind beautifully, the young Finzi rises to the challenge, capturing strongly the aching nostalgia of the final lines. Roderick Williams’ voice is perfect for this music. It is a classic English baritone, with a firm lower register and a bright, clear top. Sometimes, I could wish he would ‘let rip’ a little more – perhaps the climax of The Clock of the Years could be more shattering. Yet he uses this fine, supple instrument with striking musical intelligence. If I still narrowly prefer Stephen Varcoe in the more reflective of these songs, it is only because he has an almost unnaturally beautiful voice, which can do things that most baritones can only dream of; his Lizbie Browne is incomparable, for example. Varcoe’s Hyperion recordings made in 1984 are classics (CDA66161/2). Williams and Burnside however offer a splendid and completely acceptable alternative. More please!

John T. Hughes
International Record Review, October 2006

Roderick Williams has already recorded three Finzi song-cycles for Naxos (reviewed by me in June 2005). For the present issue Andrew Burn supplies excellent notes, and the listener benefits from the inclusion (unlike that earlier release) of the words in the booklet: so important, despite Williams's verbal clarity.

To a Poet consists of six songs formed into a group after Finzi's death. The earliest is from the 1920s; the latest, 'The birthnight', from 1956. Finzi deserts his favoured Thomas Hardy and turns to six different poets, from Thomas Traherne to George Barker.

Earth and Air and Rain is the best of the three collections, containing such songs as the marching 'When I set out for Lyonesse', the yearning 'To Lizbie Browne' and the stark, Hardy-black 'The Clock of the Years'.

It was Hardy to whom Finzi turned for By Footpath and Stile, first performed as early as 1923. This Naxos issue seems to be its initial recording. Burn is gently positive about the work; Diana McVeagh more enthusiastic in Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (reviewed in December 2005); but Stephen Banfield (Gerald Finzi: An English Composer; Faber & Faber; 1998) finds 'a general tendency to overwrite and a lack of straightforward musical perspective', whereas Trevor Hold, in Parry to Finzi (reviewed in April 2003), considers it 'a pity that it has been reissued against the composer's instructions', Finzi having withdrawn it in 1934.

Williams inflects his programme with various nuances and provides good enunciation. Sometimes, though, he almost disconnects words instead of singing legato. One small example suffices. In 'Paying Calls', the first of the Op. 2 songs, the line 'The oldest of all' finds each of the last three words almost separated from its surroundings. Legato would have been better served if he had elided 'of all': it would still have been clear.

He strides eagerly towards Lyonesse; recalls Lizbie Browne in regretful reverie (with some lovely lightness of tone); with effective contrasts vainly tries to haul back past years (Iain Burnside adds eeriness in the piano): all in Earth and Air and Rain. Burnside plays a major part in 'Proud Songsters', the final song. To a Poet ends with 'Ode on the rejection of St Cecilia', a splendid setting in which Finzi has, in McVeagh's opinion, 'ably combined the declamatory and vocalizing styles in this one fine song'. Williams supplies the colours and contrasts necessary for what is akin to an operatic recitative, a fine song indeed, and Burnside joins in 'the fury and magnificence', as Finzi put it.

On lower notes, a gravelly, unsteady tone intrudes at times, but Williams's middle and upper reaches, the latter particularly in subdued voice, are very acceptable. The recording is excellent.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, October 2006

This release of Finzi songs, the fifteenth volume in the acclaimed Naxos ‘English Song Series’ contains three separate song cycles, sets or collections. This is the second volume of Finzi songs in the series; the first volume was released on Naxos 8.557644 (see reviews 1 and 2). The issue opens with the cycle Earth and Air and Rain of Thomas Hardy settings; a masterpiece in the genre of English song. Next comes an assortment of song settings of various poets for baritone and piano that were assembled into a set after Finzi’s death and given the title To a Poet. The final cycle is By Footpath and Stile is an early collection of Hardy settings scored for baritone and string quartet. The London-born Finzi was not prolific in terms of his output but his scores display a consistently fastidious, high quality craftsmanship, an attribute not always present in the works of his contemporaries. Finzi had an unbridled passion for literature, especially English poetry. At his death I understand that he left a stunning collection that contained over three thousand books. The thoughtful Finzi excelled as a particularly effective and sensitive setter of texts of his favourite poets. A large proportion of his scores were written for the voice. Finzi certainly made a major contribution to twentieth-century English song that has endured with considerable fondness both in the recording studio and in the recital hall. In the sleeve-notes it is claimed that Finzi, “made an unrivalled contribution to British twentieth century song-writing…” As outstanding as Finzi was as a song setter he certainly wasn’t “unrivalled” in twentieth century British song. I cannot overlook the extraordinary contribution made by his English-born contemporaries such as: Ivor Gurney, Peter Warlock, Roger Quilter, John Ireland, Herbert Howells, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten. Composed between 1928-32 the song-cycle Earth and Air and Rain is a collection of ten songs set from Thomas Hardy who was the poet he most responded to and revered. Andrew Burn writes of Finzi, “He felt an empathy with Hardy’s bleak fatalism, his sense of transience, and his anger at the suffering that mankind afflicts on mankind.” The cycle contains two of Finzi’s most celebrated and contrasting settings, the drinking song Rollicum-Rorum and the poignant To Lizbie Browne. Finzi at his death in 1956 left some twenty-four miscellaneous songs that he had composed throughout his career. They comprised settings of various poets. Howard Ferguson, Finzi’s wife Joy and his son Christopher assembled the songs into four groups, one set of six songs for baritone and piano was given the title To a Poet. I experienced slight disappointment with this ad hoc collection of songs. The lack of a coherent connecting theme from Finzi seemed evident. The six songs for baritone and string quartet By Footpath and Stile was composed between 1921 and 1922 which makes them the earliest collection cycle set using the beloved poems of Thomas Hardy. The decision to employ a string quartet as an alternative to the piano accompaniment makes an astonishing and successful difference. Andrew Burn highlights the composer’s, “… preoccupation with death and the transience of life…” features that are so apparent in his choice of Hardy poems for the cycle. There is a sticker placed on the CD jewel case announcing that these Naxos recordings of By Footpath and Stile, Op.2 are world premiere recordings. Owing to the appeal of these scores it is astonishing that the song-cycle has not been recorded previously. The baritone Roderick Williams seems to be everywhere at the moment but on the evidence of these performances it is not surprising he is much sought after in the recording studio. I first came across him fairly recently singing on the Vaughan Williams cantata Willow-Wood (1909) on Naxos8.557798 (see reviews 1 and 2). Since then I have followed his career with great interest. Williams seems to have a special affinity for these Finzi scores, displaying a rich pliable tone that is incisive and extremely dramatic as required. He is comfortable right across his range and his expressive interpretations are sincere and thought-provoking. It is pleasing to hear a baritone in this repertoire that does not have a distinctive intrusive vibrato, detracting from the enjoyment of the music. In the song cycle Earth and Air and Rain Williams’ interpretation of the memorable Rollicum-Rorum is deft and nimble and in To Lizbie Browne, which I believe to be the finest work contained on this release, we hear Williams articulate the expressive ache and the remorseful pining for what might have been. The baritone confidently provides measures of darkness and morbidity in The Clock of the Years and conveys an unearthly beauty In a churchyard. In the song cycle To a Poet, especially enjoyable is the way Williams communicates mystery and melancholy in To a poet a thousand years hence. By Footpath and Stile is impressive for Williams’ charming pastoral lyricism in Paying calls and the gravely brooding, dark emotions of Voices from things growing in a churchyard. First class, well balanced sound quality from Naxos and interesting and informative booklet notes from Andrew Burn. Full texts are provided. Williams is in wonderful voice and the accompaniments from pianist Iain Burnside and the Sacconi Quartet are perfect. Any lover of English song would want to obtain this Naxos issue.

Anne Ozorio
MusicWeb International, August 2006

Roderick Williams is perhaps one of the finest Finzi singers ever. He’s immersed in the choral tradition, yet brings to English song a new freshness. It’s a wonderful combination. He understands the music and its background, yet sings with a direct vividness that communicates beyond the genre, giving it a universal, human quality that’s unfortunately sometimes missed in the somewhat insular world of British music. Finzi may have written in the English manner but there is something deep in his music that transcends context. By Footpath and Stile is an early cycle, begun in 1921, revised but left unfinished until Howard Ferguson edited it half a century after the composer’s death. Although this is very early Finzi, signs of his mature style are already glimpsed. The first song, whose first line gives the cycle its title, is one of those quixotic poems Finzi liked, where the punchline suddenly overturns the cosy bucolic image. The protagonist is visiting the dead, in a graveyard “beyond where bustle ends”. Williams sings the last two lines of The Oxen in high half-voice, bringing an instant sophistication to an otherwise unexceptional song. In this cycle, the violin is as much a singer as the baritone, its long lines weaving in and out, indeed, introducing and ending the cycle. It punctuates Voices from things growing in a churchyard, helping differentiate the individual portraits: it makes a good counterpoint to the strophic lines or verse and setting. With the lightest of nuance, Williams whispers; “all day cheerily, all night eerily”, trite words, perhaps but he gives them dignity. Violin and viola embellish the vocal line in the final song, closing the cycle surprisingly well, hinting at the future. Finzi’s style is more mature in the much loved Earth and Air and Rain. This has been recorded several times, but Williams will be the new benchmark. His voice is richer and his style more forthright, Burnside’s playing equally direct and clear. Their version of Waiting Both is the best I’ve heard. Burnside captures the famous Finzi “twinkling star” theme in sparkling half-tones: Williams capturing that curious but effective Finzi feel for emphasizing words in strange syntax “What do YOU mean to do, mean to do”. His voice is even richer and more beautiful in So I have fared, a song which can be impossibly coy with its latin refrain. His choral background makes the latin sound completely natural, like modern speech integrated with modern English. Yet Williams’s style is essentially beyond time and genre. His Lizbie Browne may be a Devon lass in Hardy’s imagination, but Williams makes us all identify with the feeling. He makes The Clock of the Years a dramatic story whose horror unfolds slowly. If Burnside’s tempi are a shade slow, they suit the mood. Indeed, in Proud Songsters, Burnside brings out the awkward alienness of young birds by following Finzi’s subtle discords and odd rhythm. It enhances the sense of strangeness Williams evokes, reminding the listener of the fragility of life, and indeed, of the mystery of new life itself. Already, here are hints of Finzi’s greatest masterpiece Dies Natalis, alreadyin gestation at the time these songs were composed. It’s pertinent that this is followed by the songs in To a Poet that celebrate birth and youth. Indeed, Thomas Traherne’s Intrada is here in a vocal song which will become purely instrumental in Dies Natalis. Williams shapes the lines “Things strange, yet common, most high, yet plain” with the same otherworldly strangeness that marks the later cantata. Finzi’s setting of Walter de la Mare’s The Birthright is completely different, though the theme, too, is wonder at the miracle of birth. It’s warmer, more intimate, more human. The contrast is all the more reason, I think, to value the essentially spiritual fervour of Dies Natalis. The Finzi Trust made this recording possible. For Finzi’s admirers, this will be an important addition, but it’s ideal, too, for those completely new to the genre, because Williams is so direct and natural.

BBC Music Magazine, July 2006

This second volume of Finzi songs includes the world premiere recording of By Footpath and Stile. “Roderick Williams’ elegant and delicate performances reveal the heart of this music…and lain Burnside is an excellent partner.”

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