ENDNOTES, December 2018
Endnotes, December 2018; in this edition, orchestral works by Gerald Finzi and Kenneth Hesketh, reviewed by Stuart Millson
The longing which infuses Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony and the mysterious romanticism of John Ireland combine in the music of Gerald Finzi (1901-56). Newly issued from Chandos Records comes a Finzi collection – the Cello Concerto, Op. 40 written at the end of the composer’s life, but contrasted with three other notable pieces, the gentle, pastoral Eclogue,Op. 10 (with Louis Lortie performing the piano part of this miniature concerto), the Nocturne, and the Grand Fantasia and Toccata from 1928. For the Cello Concerto, we have the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis in splendid form; providing the delicate sighs and interplay between orchestral principals and sections, and the cello soloist, Paul Watkins, the former lead cello of that orchestra.
The first movement of the work is a lengthy, endearing dialogue between soloist and ensemble, tinged by a soft evening glow of English impressionism. There is a dramatic, purposeful section close to the end, with its sense of striding across down land or looking out on a magnificent, but disturbing landscape. The second movement – the most famous part of this under-performed work – is one of the high-points of English romanticism: bringing to mind the heartfelt opening of Brideshead Revisited or a more general sense of classical nostalgia or remembrance. The conductor, Sir John Barbirolli, charged with the premiere of the work in 1955, wrote to Finzi:
“I felt tears in my eyes in the slow movement. There are only a few moments in music which do that… I can assure you, you are in good company.”
And yet despite the new CD offering the very finest musical and recording experience, herewith one or two reservations. For all its satisfying qualities, the Concerto– when compared to an earlier Chandos production featuring Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – lacks emphasis, especially in the outer movements. For example, the exhilaration of the “outdoor” section, when compared to Handley and the RLPO, comes over as less “commanding” and memorable. The slow movement, too – although hushed and full of reverence under Sir Andrew Davis – needed to unfold more slowly. Handley’s version also suffers from a tendency to take the opening too quickly; and for those of us fortunate enough to have been there some three years ago at the English Music Festival, the most perfect tempo – which even achieved a grandeur as well as an intimacy – was provided by Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra, with Raphael Wallfisch the perfect soloist.
Finzi’s Eclogue also delights the ear, but again – Davis and Lortie do not seem to believe in lingering over this work, which deserves to be savoured and played without reference to time and tempo.
Time is very much a preoccupation of Kenneth Hesketh (b. 1968) – a modern British composer who, more than any other contemporary voice, with the possible exception of the late Oliver Knussen, relishes the sound of a full orchestra, in this case the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Christoph-Mathia Mueller. Recorded at the BBC’s state-of-the-art symphonic centre, Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff, the Corporation’s Welsh National Orchestra proves itself every bit the master of contemporary music – rivalling the BBC SO in London, with a performance style, fully immersed in British modernism: shimmering, metallic effects and stretched tonality shining through brilliantly in the recording, with Hesketh’s audacious, yet still accessible ideas taken up with persuasive vitality and commitment.
Of Time and Disillusionment, a work written two years ago – stands out; its remarkable textures, enhanced by an other-worldly atmosphere of percussive ringing. In Ictu Oculi– in the blink of an eye – is an exercise in superb orchestration, the composing instinct and mind allowed to grasp new ideas and notation, and in terms of imagination and sheer craftsmanship, alone, would be enough to endear modern music to the most diehard conservative or tonalist.
The cover of the CD offers a somewhat disturbing close-up shot of the human eye – but it is exactly the right choice of artwork: Hesketh’s music is razor-sharp, with a definition and all-seeing power. A musical voice to be reckoned with.
Finzi collection, catalogue number, CHSA 5214
Kenneth Hesketh, cat. 0092
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review