This is a short list of Gerald Finzi’s key works, with links to buy CDs at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, and to listen to excerpts from selected works. Composition descriptions are courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes.
The last phase of Finzi’s output following the Second World War saw a series of larger scale works culminating in the completion of the Cello Concerto, the work which dominated his final year and was first broadcast on the night before his death in 1956. Barbirolli championed the concerto actively, with the Cheltenham premiere being followed by a Royal Festival Hall and a Prom performance, which at any other time in Finzi’s life would have signalled a major breakthrough. In the years since the composer’s death, the work has become increasingly admired and performed as one of Finzi’s most eloquent and richly inventive scores.
The Clarinet Concerto, Finzi’s most widely performed and recorded orchestral work, shows his particular empathy for this solo instrument. Here the clarinet’s equal facility for sustained legato melody and rapid virtuosic figuration is supported by and interacts with his ever-imaginative writing for strings. The concerto breathes an air of fresh spontaneity, moving through baroque-inflected pastoralism, aching Elgarian echoes and lively folk-inspired melody. Artists who have become particularly associated with the work in concert and on disc in recent years include Emma Johnson, Richard Stoltzman, Michael Collins and Andrew Marriner.
Quintessentially the essence of Finzi, Dies Natalis sets texts by the 17th century poet Thomas Traherne which reflect the joy and wonder of a newborn child’s innocent perspective on the world. The richly textured, resourceful string writing and the long instrumental melodic lines have a broad sweep which carries the music naturally forwards in a unity of spirit with the poetry – a hallmark of Finzi’s art. The subtle inflections of the word-setting and the arching lyricism have attracted many leading vocalists to the work in concert and on disc, including Wilfred Brown, Ian Partridge, Philip Langridge, Ian Bostridge and John Mark Ainsley. Although particularly associated with the tenor voice, Dies natalis was premiered and is increasingly performed by sopranos.
This distinctive suite of short movements is now a cornerstone of the clarinet repertoire for players of all ages. Orchestral, string quartet and wind ensemble versions are also available.
Intimations of Immortality
This is the most extended of Finzi’s choral works, composed in one continuous musical movement of truly symphonic proportions. Perhaps of all the choral works, Intimations shows his word-setting at its most expressive and poignant, demonstrating his personal and individual affinity with the poet Wordsworth, and his resourcefulness in finding imaginative ways to set poetry which many had regarded as unsettable because of its classic status. The variety of moods ranges widely, from the pastoral lyricism of the opening, through the intimate Delius-like The rainbow comes and goes, to the jazzy and extrovert depiction of birdsong which is close in idiom to Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast or Lambert’s Rio Grande.
Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice
This is one of a distinguished series of choral works commissioned by the Rev Walter Hussey for performance by the choir of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton (others include Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, and Hussey commissioned Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms when his career took him to Chichester Cathedral). In terms of Finzi’s output, this was the longest single span of music he had yet written, and is available in versions with full orchestra or organ. Stephen Banfield in his book on the composer thinks it contains some of Finzi’s finest music, portraying the liturgical drama of the Eucharist in a series of characterful sections commencing with a solemn, almost improvisatory, introduction. The closing eight-part Amen is one of the most remarkable and poignant pieces of choral writing of its period.