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Derek Warby
MusicWeb International, February 2008

This is a very thoughtful recital of Finzi songs. A Young Man’s Exhortation is that rare thing in Finzi’s output – a series of songs actually conceived from the outset as a cycle. What makes this collection so attractive in programme terms is the inclusion of two other collections which include songs possibly originally intended for A Young Man’s Exhortation. This cycle has fared well on CD. Both Martyn Hill and James Gilchrist have recorded the complete set quite beautifully. This music is very much ‘English tenor’ territory and John Mark Ainsley is among the very finest of the breed. His voice is lucid, diction always beautifully clear and the musicality and phrasing is faultless. This makes a wonderful companion to the two Finzi discs recorded by baritone Roderick Williams – both also with Iain Burnside – which represent volumes 12 and 15 of Naxos’s excellent English Song Series.

Finzi was a huge admirer of Thomas Hardy and set his words more than those of any other writer, beginning in 1921 with By Footpath and Stile and also including Before and After Summer, I Said to Love, Earth and Air and Rain and Till Earth Outwears – the last included here. A Young Man’s Exhortation is a relatively early collection. Its ten songs are all beautifully crafted, with great care being taken over the setting of the words for which Finzi felt such an affinity. The music is still early enough in Finzi’s output to show the influence of Holst and Vaughan Williams but there are some remarkable touches which are pure Finzi, such as the lush musical language of Her Temple and the spare textures and eerie harmonies in The Comet at Yell’ham.

Finzi was a notoriously slow composer and many works occupied him for a considerable number of years. The songs that formed his sets as he called them were collated over many years, slowly being grouped into suitable combinations. At the time of his death more than twenty songs remained unallocated to any groupings. Finzi's widow, son Christopher and composer Howard Ferguson divided these into four groups. Till Earth Outwears brings together seven Thomas Hardy tenor settings. One of the earliest of these is At a Lunar Eclipse, which was probably one of those originally intended for inclusion in A Young Man’s Exhortation. Two of the songs are very late pieces. Life laughs onwards dates from March 1955 and is tinged with regret, doubtless due to Finzi’s knowledge of his terminal illness. It never looks like summer here is from February 1956 and so ranks among Finzi’s very last works.

The seven songs of Oh Fair to See bring together settings of words by a variety of poets, including one more by Hardy. Again, they represent many years from Finzi’s composing career, including another possible contender for inclusion in A Young Man’s ExhortationI say ‘I’ll seek her side’.

The recording was made in the Finzi anniversary year 2006 exactly fifty years and three months after Finzi’s death. I found the balance of Ainsley’s voice and Burnside’s piano quite perfect, with enough bloom around the sound to present these lovely songs at their very best. The excellent and informative booklet notes are by possibly the Finzi expert of our times, Andrew Burn and a full set of texts for the songs is provided. For any lovers of English song, this is an indispensable disc, especially with this thoughtfully compiled programme.

John Steane
Gramophone, September 2007

Ainsley, Gilchrist, Bostridge, Padmore, and (a little earlier) Tear, Partridge, Langridge, Hill, Rolfe Johnson back to Lewis and Pears: to a foreigner (an Italian, let's say) they must seem very alike and our liking for them not very readily fathomable. We can reply that they're all intelligent, reliable musicians, and that anyway, if it's the present song repertoire we're thinking of theirs was the kind of voice and musical style such songs were written for. Only I daresay we would have to admit that this shared reliability and aptness does not make life easier when it comes to the matter of choice.

John Mark Ainsley certainly has more "ring" than most. There is a considerable sense of power in reserve, which makes his judicious use of it particularly effective. He uses less of that "white", non-vibrating, "spiritual" tone which is thought of as typically English. His production is firm but not rigid, and he is not addicted to the pernicious habit of making a little crescendo on individual notes. His virtues are regularly evident in these songs of Finzi, together with good, clear diction and a thoughtful expressiveness. And if there is something missing it is a quality not easily identifiable. But try Martyn Hill with Clifford Benson in A Young Man’s Exhortation and Till Earth Outwears (Hyperion, 3/90). With him I have a livelier conviction that each song is a distinct, personal utterance, the tone usually a little lighter, the style a shade closer to the presently unfolding communicativeness of speech. I also find in the new recording that tl1e contribution made by the piano part as an independent voice is weakened (contrary no doubt to the intention) by its being balanced so closely with the singer. It presses in too insistently, and forfeits something of its power of subtle commentary.

James Gilchrist has also recorded these songs in an identical programme on the Linn label (8/05), and these too I slightly prefer for their more personal touch and a freer, less congested balancing of voice and piano. His pianist then and here in this new issue is the excellent Anna Tilbrook who with the Fitzwilliam Quartet and the additional players works with the singer to give a wonderfully imaginative account of On Wenlock Edge and The Curlew. The developing tale of Bredon Hill has never been more vividly told on records, and the desolation of Warlock's masterpiece becomes more poignant still because of the beauty evoked. Bliss's Elegiac Sonnet written by himself and Cecil Day Lewis in memory of the pianist Noel Mewton- Wood, warm’s where Warlock has chilled, and Gurney's Housman cycle has also its finest performance on record. Strongly recommended.

William Yeoman
Limelight, September 2007

If song was at the centre of English composer Gerald Finzi’s music, then Thomas Hardy’s poetry was at the centre of his songwriting…Of the three groups of songs recorded here, A Young Man’s Exhortation is the only genuine cycle; Till Earth Outwears and Oh Fair to See are posthumous collections. The latter features settings of poems by Christina Rossetti, Ivor gurney and Robert Bridges, as well as by Hardy. Tenor John Mark Ainsley and pianist Iain Burnside, both very experienced song recitalists in their respective fields, bring out the relationship between text and music with great clarity. There’s a real sense of mystery and sadness in ‘The Comet at Yell’ham’, both in the vocal line and in the often pointillistic piano part, while the folk-like simplicity of ‘The Market-Girl’ is counterbalanced by sophisticated tonal balance and phrasing. Ainsley’s vocal colouring in Edmund Charles Blunden’s elegy on the death of his bay daughter ‘To Joy’ feels like a genuine emotional response.

Andrew Stewart
Classic FM, August 2007

Finzi was appointed to the staff of the Royal Academy of Music in 1930, not long after completing the first of two cycles of Thomas Hardy settings. A Young Man's Exhortation (1926-29) amounts to a young composer's marker of excellence, both in Finzi's innately tasteful response to good poetry and his courage to make bold statements with the voice. The careful balance of refined taste and unbridled emotion suits John Mark Ainsley, an artist on terrific form throughout this hugely enjoyable recital. Iain Burnside, likewise, revels in the full Finzian variety, gloriously echoing the lost world of Hardy's Wessex. Oh, fair to hear.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2007

In the world of song we find Gerald Finzi following in the footsteps of Vaughan Williams and taking music forward to the era of Benjamin Britten. Born in 1901, a person of gentle personality who lived much of his life in the British countryside, the pastoral atmosphere he loved coming though in his music, though his songs often reflect the immense sadness that affected his young life. When setting the words of Thomas Hardy - his favourite poet - he shares the writer's bleak fatalism and the injustice of the way mankind treats its kinfolk. He was only twenty-five when he started work on the extended song-cycle, A Young Man's Exhortations, its ten songs divided in two parts, words oscillating between hope and sorrow, the two combining in the tenth song, The Dance Continued (Regret me not). The effect of the cycle is so potent you are left remembering the things that might have been in your own life as pictured in The Sigh. The difference between Finzi and Britten comes in Finzi's avoidance of any sense of self-pity in the music, the listener allowed to place their own slant on the words without interjection from Finzi. Till Earth Outwears was composed over a period of twenty-five years as a series of individual songs brought together and first performed in 1958, two years after his untimely death. To those of advancing years many of the songs will take on an added depth of sadness, though the fourth song, The Market Girl, has a happy twist in the final words, and where he could have here taken the music into final triumph, he resists such a temptation. Oh Fair to See was also a posthumous compilation, Finzi this time using a number of poets and setting them for high voice. There is more sunshine here with the cycle finishing on a happy note. Many will say that Finzi needs a singer with that innate English quality, though they forget how the sound of British tenors has changed since his death. That said I don't suppose they will ever be performed with more beauty, sincerity and understanding than we have here from John Mark Ainsley. He has for many years been at the pinnacle of UK singers, Finzi's music never causing any discomfort to his lyric quality, while his diction is spotlessly clean. In Iain Burnside he has an accompanist that singers cherish, his playing adding much to the music. Top quality recording and Naxos once again has a complete winner.

June 2007

“A Young Man’s Exhortion is winsome and wistful, while Till Earth Outwears has a more worldly charm.” Review in The Financial Times by Andrew Clark, 16th June

“The English Song Series – here reaching volume 16 – is one of Naxos’s most distinguished collections. The newly recorded discs devoted to the song output of Finzi (1901-56) have been exceptional, with two earlier issues outstandingly well sung. Here, Ainsley, one of our finest tenors, tackles two of Finzi’s best ‘cycles’, settings of his favourite poet, Thomas Hardy: A Young Man’s Exhortation and Till Earth Outwears. A third set, Oh Fair to See, opens with a Hardy setting, but uses an anthology of English poets. Ainsley is a natural, unfussy interpreter and his diction is well-nigh impeccable. His effortless lyricism is supported by Burnside’s eloquent pianism. Lovers of English song need not hesitate.” Review (4 stars) in The Sunday Times by Hugh Canning, 10th June

"With Iain Burnside once again as accompanist, the performances by John Mark Ainsley maintain the standard set in the previous installments by baritone Roderick Williams. Ainsley gets two of the Hardy cycles, including what is arguably the greatest of all of them, A Young Man’st Exhortation. He delivers all the songs, whether deceptively simple ballads or highly wrought, with wonderful artistry, and he is equally attuned to the world of the other Hardy cycle here, Till Earth Outwears – smaller in scale, though it does contain one of Finzi’s greatest songs, At a Lunar Eclipse.” Review (4 stars) in The Guardian by Andrew Clements, 1st June

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