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Earth and Air and Rain: songs by Gerald Finzi to words by Thomas Hardy

Hyperion

Released August 27, 2009

At any other time during the miserable history of British music, Gerald Finzi would have been considered one of England’s greatest composers. Just his luck, he was born just as Ralph Vaughan Williams was realizing his full potential and died just in time for Benjamin Britten to be achieving his.

Nestled within the shadows of contemporaries, Finzi managed to eke out a unique soundscape that somehow negotiates the graceful yet grave: Orchestral works tend to appear brooding in their initial hearing, and choral works are often imbued with an undue gravitas. Settings of Milton’s sonnets seem indelibly lonely, while settings of songs from Shakespeare’s works maintain a somber glee. But the music is far more nuanced than its initial gloom might indicate, somehow more private than sad.

Finzi is at his most comfortable in a recent reissue of a 1989 recording of tenor Martyn Hill and baritone Stephen Varcoe singing settings of poems by Thomas Hardy. Although a modern aesthetic might find Hardy’s poetic output affected, the author’s work appeared to resonate with the British composer. Of all his voice and piano compositions, Finzi devoted the most of his energy to Thomas Hardy’s works, setting over fifty works to music spanning the majority of his career.

Along with pianist Clifford Benson, Hill and Varcoe’s recording, Earth and Air and Rain, traverses five song cycles, the earliest of which (A Young Man’s Exhortation, Op. 14) were composed at the very beginning of Finzi’s career, the last of which (I said to Love, Op. 19b) was completed weeks before his death.

At his most exciting, Benson is staid in his accompaniments, warm when appropriate, and brusquely humorous in the rare occasion Finzi’s music hints at a smile. Hill and Varcoe follow suit. Hill’s voice provides a rich timbre throughout Finzi’s settings in the lower tenor range, tastefully accentuating the occasional swell in his more comfortable upper register. Varcoe, at times muddled and over-bearing in his lower register, sings with a warm tone that is remarkably expressive.

None of this is gushing praise and it really should be. But it’s difficult to voice why Benson, Varcoe, and Hill’s vision of this music is so poignantly remarkable without violating the fragile thoughtfulness of their achievement.

While his contemporaries were writing music tailored in part for popular consumption, Finzi’s works are remarkably internalized. The Hardy songs are no different: Summer Schemes, the opening track of the entire CD, lacks pomp and introduction, proceeding in its narrative without looking backwards to see whether the listener is following.

This is the charm of this music and this recording. The musicians somehow understand the difference between Finzi and his peers and perform the music that way: So have I fared sets an insipid text (Hardy twists Latin pronunciation to rhyme “tryst, I” with fecisti, “missed I” with deduxisti, “wist I” with suscepisti, and so on) to a startlingly stoic chorale tune that Varcoe’s nearly straight-tone baritone molds into a deep personal reverie; To Lizbie Browne is no longer a cloy love letter, but a personal confession of devotion; alien harmonies in The Dance Continued change Hardy’s dirge into a reflection on youth and death. Hill’s success here is that he performs it as such.

There’s no good way to describe these remarkably personal pieces, precisely because they immediately become so internalized upon first listening. Finzi’s settings of the Hardy poems reflect the intimate knowledge the composer developed of the poet’s work. It’s wimpy music, requiring a more fragile, supple touch, recoiling from the bravura of bel canto, stentorian Wagnerian or rococo oratorio.

Wimpy, but still beautiful. Earth and Air and Rain manages so many nuanced performances, so much by way of subtle and tactful singing that it’s impossible not to hear Finzi’s love and understanding of Hardy’s poetry or Finzi’s unique vision of the potential for British music.