Rewarding Wigmore Hall pairing of Finzi and Schubert by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Voyage around Hardy: Finzi and Schubert: Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.11.2019. (CC)

Roderick Williams

Finzi – ‘Childhood among the Ferns’, Op.16/1 (1948/8)
Schubert – ‘Im Heine’, D738 (1822/3); ‘Der Wanderer’, D489 (1816); ‘Der Einsame’, D800 (1825)
Finzi – ‘Amabel’, Op.16/9 (1932)
Schubert – ‘Liebhaber in allen Gestallten’, D558 (1817); ‘An Rosa’ II, D316 (1815); ‘Die Liebe hat gelogen’, D751 (1822)
Finzi – ‘Channel Firing’, Op.16/5 (1940)
Schubert – ‘Totengrabers Heimweh’, D842 (1825)
Finzi – ‘Earth and Air and Rain’, Op.15 (1928-35)

In what he described as ‘a rhapsodic, free association of poetic thoughts and images’, Roderick Williams takes songs from Finzi’s Op.16 (‘Before and After Summer’), settings of poetry by Thomas Hardy, and suggests offshoots from the vast pool of Schubert’s songs; the second half of the evening comprised a complete performance of Finzi’s song cycle ‘Earth and Air and Rain’.

The journey started with Finzi, his glorious ‘Childhood among the Ferns’, as eminently English as anything that writer penned. Finzi’s music has a special glow, as lovers of his radiant Clarinet Concerto already know. The Hardy poem describes a lad who, languishing in the sun, decides he does not want to grow up. Setting the standard for the recital, this was a performance of two equals. The list of fine piano accompanists (partners, really) is long indeed these days, but surely Iain Burnside is among the elite few. His sensitivity was remarkable, the depiction of the sun bursting through the clouds magnificent. It was this very act of Nature, the pool of sunlight, that formed the link to Schubert’s delicious ‘Im Haine’, a light song which found Williams delivering maximal charm and Burnside a staccato to die for. The idea of isolation, or a rather more interior nature, is found in the famous ‘Der Wanderer’ (to a poem by the North German poet Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck). The deliciously aching dissonances of the piano part were beautifully judged, as was the trajectory of the whole, Williams floating the lower dynamics beautifully over Burnside’s throbbing accompaniment. The flip side of being alone is writ large in Schubert’s ‘Der Einsame’ D800, with its crisp bass staccato in the piano and its easy turns. Over this, Williams told the tale beautifully – he is a raconteur in Lied par excellence.

The next Finzi catalysing song was the beautiful ‘Amabel’ (again from ‘Before and After Summer’), marked by its glorious simplicity that surely owes much to Schubert in simple strophic mode. Inspired by an early infatuation, Finzi creates the utmost loveliness. Lightness is reflected in Schubert’s ‘Liebhaber in allen Gestalten’, in which the protagonist declares ‘I am as I am,’ while in ‘An Rosa’ II we find love from afar, idealised. Finally for this group, ‘Die Liebe hat gelogen’ in which we find a graphic description of the death of a love through betrayal. The chordal setting contains much power; more than this, Williams and Burnside’s timing over silences ensured maximal impact. To end the first half, we heard a pairing of two extended songs. Finzi’s ‘Channel Firing’ and Schubert’s ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’, two ‘greats of song’ as Williams described them. The Finzi was miraculous – how Williams enjoyed the sighing phrase at ‘The glebe cow drooped’, and how Burnside found the sad tread of the piano’s contribution. The expansive song gives time for proper narration; as does ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’, another song where the onward tread of the piano plays a hugely impactful part.

Three of the elements make up the title of Finzi’s Op.18: ‘Earth and Air and Rain’. Perhaps it is left to the performers to add the fire, and that was certainly the case here in a performance of gripping intensity. Starting from the easy flow of ‘Summer scheme,’ it moves through a march with some lovely Finzi-esque turns of melodic phrase (‘When I set out for Lyonesse’) to a place far removed from the opening: the progressive harmonies of ‘Waiting both’. Here Burnside emphasised the modernism of Finzi’s thought; and how beautifully controlled was Williams’s blanched, final ‘So mean I’.

The song ‘So have I fared’ has every stanza ending with a Latin phrase (helpfully translated in the programme) – to great effect. Certainly ‘Rollicum-rorum’ is the jolly one in the cycle, contrasting with the reflective ‘To Lizbie Brown’. Here in this latter song, phrases arch over the poem’s line breaks beautifully; masterly writing from Finzi, and we also find a balancing still point, beautifully landed on here. Compositionally, perhaps the penultimate song, ‘In a churchyard’ is the greatest, containing a beautiful harmonic opening out at its fourth stanza (‘Now set among the wise’). Finzi lavishes loveliness on the final song, though, ‘Proud songsters,’ with its long piano opening and, later, its superb sense of melodic flow. It is at moments of flow like that in which one feels the affinity to Schubert most strongly.

Encores were generous: two settings of ‘Who is Sylvia’, one by Schubert, (yes, that one), one by Finzi (the second of Op.18, ‘Let us garlands bring’). Then explorations from Williams’s own pen (or iPad), ‘The Girl from Bad Nordheim’, a meeting of Schubert’s ‘Sylvia’ with ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. Could there be more perfect encores?

Those wishing to investigate Finzi’s ‘Before and After Summer’ on disc should head over to Lyrita, where John Carol Case and Howard Ferguson give an unforgettable account (review) or investigate the recording by Williams and Burnside (review)/ For ‘Earth and Air and Rain’ either the recording by Williams and Burnside (review) or the one by Benjamin Luxon and David Willison on Decca (review) would be good places to start.

Colin Clarke

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