Which is the best recording of Finzi's Clarinet Concerto?

Patrick Rucker Thu 14th July 2016

It took almost three decades for this 1949 work to be recorded, and even then there’s been more of a steady trickle than a glut of further offerings. Most, however, are worthy of a listen, discovers Mark Pullinger

Gerald Finzi (photo: Angus McBean)

Gerald Finzi (photo: Angus McBean)

The popular image of Gerald Finzi, who died 60 years ago this year, is predominately a pastoral one, his music often sneeringly damned with the same adjective. Although born in London in 1901 to a family of Italian-German Jewish origin, he was at his happiest in the English countryside. His shy, introverted character was largely shaped by his circumstances: his father died in 1909 and he’d lost all three of his brothers by 1918. During the Great War he and his mother moved to Harrogate, where he studied with Ernest Farrar, a pupil of Stanford. Farrar died in action in 1918. In the 1920s Finzi moved to the Cotswolds, where he composed song settings of Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy poems.

A Hampshire Idyll

After a brief spell back in London teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, he moved with his wife, Joy, to the village of Ashmansworth near Newbury in 1939. There, Finzi cultivated rare species of apple trees in his orchard, collected books and edited music of 18th-century English composers. It was in this house at Ashmansworth that the couple’s friend Vaughan Williams composed most of his Eighth Symphony. Finzi found peace in his Hampshire surroundings. There’s a lovely photograph (right), taken by the composer’s mother, of him – pipe in mouth, long socks wrapping his tweed trousers – atop St Catherine’s Hill, Winchester. I myself have clambered up that hill many times, with its splendid views overlooking the River Itchen’s water meadows down at St Cross; and it was while living in Winchester that I took up the clarinet. The ‘Carol’ from Finzi’s Five Bagatelles was among my first repertoire pieces, and his Clarinet Concerto has long had a place in my affections.

The Five Bagatelles were completed in 1943 and premiered by Pauline Juler. ‘They’re not worth much, but got better notices than my decent stuff,’ the composer complained. When Finzi was commissioned in 1948 to write a work for the following year’s Three Choirs Festival (Hereford), he decided to compose a concerto for Juler, but her upcoming marriage was to cut short her concert career. Finzi turned instead to her teacher, Frederick Thurston, Britain’s pre-eminent clarinettist. During the 1920s Thurston had played in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, before becoming principal of the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra, which he left in 1946 to focus on chamber music. Although Finzi’s concerto was premiered by Thurston, it was still dedicated to Juler.

Unusually for Finzi, the concerto was composed fairly quickly. The premiere took place on September 9, 1949, the composer himself conducting the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Those orchestral forces were significant, for during the Second World War, Finzi had created an amateur group called the Newbury String Players, with whom he initially refused to perform his own music, instead promoting the works of other composers and, in the process, developing great understanding of writing for strings. There is an undeniably pastoral hue to the concerto’s solo writing, but critics who dismiss it in this way fail to acknowledge the knotty string-writing Finzi employs.

Combining vigorous strings with misty nostalgia

I love the Clarinet Concerto for its mellow, almost Brahmsian quality – balancing zestful energy with autumnal repose. The first movement (Allegro vigoroso) is in vigorous C minor, with the strings, divided into multiple parts, setting up an argumentative, obdurate introduction. This has an Elgarian feel to it (shades of the Introduction and Allegro), full of semitone clashes and rising bass-lines. The clarinet fails to take the bait, responding in soft, lyrical manner, marked in the score as in modo lirico. Twice more the strings attempt to whip up a tempest, but the clarinet becalms them tenderly until furiously stung into action with a rhetorical cadenza, inserted after the premiere at the suggestion of Vaughan Williams in time for a subsequent Oxford performance. The movement closes, the clarinet finally piqued, with a sequence of 10 angry fff trills.

The rhapsodic slow movement – Adagio ma senza rigore – has became very popular. It is introspective and undemonstrative. Finzi was a noted composer of song, the qualities of which can be heard in his soaring solo writing. Muted first and second violins answer each other in the opening bars, possibly inspired by the slow movement of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. Brief clarinet cadenzas – arabesques with barely any accompaniment – follow, growing to an impassioned climax before the strings’ mutes come back on and the movement fades away to nothing. It’s one of the most wistful slow movements written for clarinet.

The Allegro giocoso rondo finale is a joyous C major affair. After a jaunty 11-bar introduction, the clarinet steals in with an innocent melody in English folksong style, gloriously taken up by the strings. A more sober 3/4 theme intervenes, occasionally hesitant, but the rondo returns. The material then slows down until Finzi reintroduces the theme from the concerto’s first movement – what Michael Kennedy (in notes for the Marriner recording) called a ‘misty nostalgia’ – before the clarinet insists that the concerto ends with an impetuous flourish.

The first recordings

Although premiered in 1949, the concerto had to wait until 1977 for its first recording. Why did it take so long? Finzi and Thurston, both born in 1901, died very young – Thurston in 1953, Finzi three years later. Had Thurston lived longer he would undoubtedly have recorded it. The concerto was taken up by plenty of clarinettists, including Sir Colin Davis, who performed it with Finzi’s own Newbury String Players in 1952. It was Thurston’s wife (and former pupil), Dame Thea King, who did much to popularise the concerto. It also came to prominent attention in 1978 when it was performed by Michael Collins in the final of the very first BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. A steady trickle – rather than a glut – of recordings followed, and the concerto is now regarded as Finzi’s finest work. Here I’ve considered a dozen available recordings, all but two recorded with English orchestras; in addition, I have commented on Collins’s first recording, which would have been included in the discography had it not been unavailable.

The first recording of the concerto was with John Denman for Lyrita, which finally transferred to CD in 2007. The New Philharmonia Orchestra under Vernon Handley – a loyal supporter of British repertoire – is on thrilling form, luxuriantly rich in the finale. Denman colours his playing with gentle vibrato, although the close recording highlights a tone that occasionally thins in the upper register. Tempos are on the relaxed side, indulging the improvisatory spirit of the solo writing, particularly in a spellbinding account of the middle movement. Around the time of this recording, Denman emigrated to the United States, where he pursued his interest in jazz.

There are some lovely session photos accompanying a YouTube clip, with Denman and an extravagantly neckerchiefed Handley under the watchful eye of Joy Finzi. Not one of these photos makes it onto Lyrita’s CD cover, which instead features a youthful Yo-Yo Ma (soloist in the Cello Concerto) instead.

Thea King holds a very special place in the concerto’s history. Thurston’s star pupil and widow (tragically, he died the year they were married), she recorded it in 1979. It was Hyperion’s very first release (on special offer at £3.99 in 1980, going up to £4.99 in 1981!), to which is attached a charming story. Unconvinced by her recording, King was sent a copy of the booklet-notes by label founder Ted Perry. He had shamelessly exploited her love of cows on the cover, which featured George Vincent’s painting Trowse Meadows. King was won over. The rest is history.

It’s a superb account, which deserves to be in any collection. The performance is well paced, almost brisk at times. King’s tone is mellow, but with an almost complete lack of vibrato, which draws away any hint of over-sentimentality. Her pianissimos in the Adagio are exquisite, and the rondo is gently amiable. The Philharmonia sounds heavier here than on Lyrita’s recording, lacking the golden sheen it displayed under Handley.

Canters and slow burns

A radio broadcast by Janet Hilton (1978) was briefly available from the BBC years later. Neither that nor George Macdonald’s ruminative account with the Northern Sinfonia (ASV; 2/1987, 2/1988) is currently available. Nor is Michael Collins’s 1987 recording on Virgin Classics (8/88), which is a great shame because it would be a real contender. I’ve always admired Collins’s rich tone – like a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon – and the way he shapes melodic lines. His rapt playing in the Adagio is extremely moving. Unlike King, with whom he studied, Collins employs a warm vibrato, and in this dynamic account he brilliantly carries off the trills at the end of the first movement. Richard Hickox draws muscular playing from the City of London Sinfonia.

Alan Hacker’s account is one of the concerto’s few disappointing outings on disc. He canters through the opening movement (about a minute-and-a-half faster than Denman) and his tone is pinched and weedy in places. The Adagio bowls along, devoid of any sense of poetry, even suffering reed blemishes and a buzzy quality to the clarinet’s chalumeau register. William Boughton’s English String Orchestra is poorly recorded – distant and tinny, but suffering Nimbus’s notorious reverberation; but this doesn’t do enough to disguise some distinctly ropey playing. One to avoid.

If a slow-burning account appeals, then Richard Stoltzman on RCA could do the trick. His tempos are very broad, especially in the Adagio – which nearly crawls to a full stop. I don’t mind the slow speed, but Stoltzman’s vibrato is extremely wide (you could drive a coach and horses through it), which rules it out of contention. He comes off the long trill at the climax of the Adagio most inelegantly. The intonation of the Guildhall String Ensemble veers towards the acidic – being a smaller ensemble should give them more sinew, but here they just sound anaemic. This version is now only available as part of a 10-disc Stoltzman box from RCA.

Emma Johnson went one step better than Collins, winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year crown in 1984. Her recording of Finzi’s concerto (paired with Stanford’s on ASV) met with widespread acclaim – a fact that, I confess, has always mystified me. I find her tone nasal and uningratiating, her phrasing choppy. She uses a lot more rubato than, say, King, which gives the Adagio a fine sense of fantasy, even if it loses some of the pastoral colour as a result. Her dynamic range is wide and she is partnered well by Sir Charles Groves and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Robert Plane gives a very fine reading for Naxos, playing with the Northern Sinfonia, of which he was principal clarinet at the time. His playing is fluent and purposeful, with plenty of character; he is suitably indignant at the close of the first movement and displays an emphatic chalumeau register in the second. He shades dynamics with great sensitivity and the rondo is wonderfully good-natured. The reverberant acoustic (in an unnamed Newcastle venue) fogs the strings rather, though the playing is nice and gritty.

‘Not difficult, very melodic, but modern in a piquant manner,’ was Jack Brymer’s pithy comment on Finzi’s concerto in his 1976 book on the clarinet. It’s a shame that Brymer never recorded it, but his immediate successor as principal of the London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Marriner, did. It’s a family affair, with his father, Sir Neville Marriner, at the helm of his Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Although Marriner Snr brings out well the inner detail of the orchestral writing, the playing is not as thrilling or rich as some versions. Andrew Marriner, however, has a glamorous, rounded tone, of melting beauty in the Adagio, where he discovers lovely colours and dynamics. He is immensely secure in the exposed upper register and uses limited vibrato to warm the sound. There’s a fine lilt to the finale, where the pizzicatos trip along merrily.

Casting the net beyond England

You wouldn’t, perhaps, expect a recording of the Finzi to emerge from Bulgaria, but Miami-based Margaret Donaghue’s account was set down, for some mysterious reason, with the Russe State Philharmonic Orchestra. They make a firm, muscular sound, but their intonation falters, particularly in the slow movement. This is masked, to some degree, by excessive reverberation, but it still lets down the solo playing, which is often very fine. Donaghue has a dark tone and imbues her playing with plenty of character, even if the recording rarely allows her to scale down to a true ppp.

Canadian James Campbell offers a very direct, no-fuss account on CBC. His dry, woody tone is pleasing, with sensitive vibrato, and he is exceptionally secure in the upper register, but there’s little sense of fantasy or poetry. The outer movements fare best, even if the rondo finale is taken at rather a sedate pace. Under Simon Streatfeild, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra sounds a little short on numbers, but acquits itself well in a reverberant venue.

New contenders

British clarinettist David Campbell was the next to record the Finzi, this time on the Clarinet Classics label. It’s an account that is positively bursting with character and detail. Campbell produces quite a dry sound, but his playing is imaginative, employing plenty of rubatoin his phrasing. He is aided by the fabulous playing of Aurora Orchestra (in its infancy in 2008), its strings sounding rich and sweet under Nicholas Collon, sensitively veiled at times, but big and beefy at others. The crescendo and accelerando leading up to Campbell’s first-movement cadenza is superb. The Adagio soars lyrically, taken very swiftly (it’s the fastest on disc), yet where Hacker sounds garbled, Campbell makes it sound perfectly natural. The carefree rondo finale is hugely uplifting, a lively jogtrot with meringue-light pizzicatos, and the reminiscence of the first movement’s theme is poignantly done.

Another BBC Young Musician finalist to set down the Finzi on disc is Sarah Williamson. Her luxuriant, chocolatey sound dominates the sound picture and there are many lovely things about her playing. She gives her first movement cadenza a timid doubting quality, like a soliloquy from Hamlet, and gives the Adagio an air of mystery. There is a touch of shrillness to her playing in the rondo, not helped by the balancing of Somm’s recording. The accompaniment from Orchestra of the Swan is a little pedestrian, demonstrating less imagination than the soloist, especially when heard in close proximity to Aurora Orchestra for Campbell. David Curtis’s rubatos don’t always convince, too often coming across as clunking gear changes – thus catching a hesitancy in the performance.

Disappointing as it is that Michael Collins’s Virgin Classics recording is not currently in the catalogue, the good news is that he re-recorded the concerto in 2012 – and it surpasses that earlier version. Here he plays with (as well as conducts – the only soloist to do so on disc) the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He draws clean, crisp playing. The BBC strings have a robust sound – the brusque opening certainly meets Finzi’s instruction of Allegro vigoroso! Collins’s approach is extremely rhapsodical, using rubato to mould melodic lines. There is a liquid quality to his phrasing, always sensitive to dynamics. The brief cadenza displays his ripe tone and velvety chalumeau, with compact trills to bring the movement to a tumultuous close.

Spectral violins open the Adagio with haunting beauty. Collins’s tempo is daringly slow (12'24") but it comes off as a melancholic elegy, veiled strings providing a warm cushion of sound. There is a smoky quality to Collins’s playing in alt that is quite mesmerising. The rondo gambols and frolics as it should, the final flourish triumphantly banishing the ghosts of those first-movement reminiscences.

The verdict

Those two earliest studio recordings lay a very special claim to the concerto. Denman’s is a poetic reading, superbly supported by Handley and the New Philharmonia Orchestra; and King’s personal connection to the work gives her recording an added aura, despite her unsentimental approach. In recent years, her Hyperion recording has been challenged by two of her pupils, David Campbell and Collins. Campbell benefits from the outstanding playing of Aurora Orchestra – the best on disc, to my mind; while Collins’s rhapsodic performance surpasses his earlier effort. The latter’s pacing of the slow movement may not be to everyone’s taste (in which case Campbell’s Clarinet Classics disc may prove a safer choice), but I am utterly convinced by the rapt atmosphere he and the BBC SO weave in this pastoral scene. In superb Chandos sound, Collins is now my top choice for Finzi’s concerto, just pipping Campbell, although both deserve a place in any collection of English music.

 

Top choice

Michael Collins

Chandos

Michael Collins’s second recording surpasses his very fine first. It is a rhapsodic, poetic interpretation, with a drawn-out Adagio which may not suit all tastes. Superbly recorded by Chandos, Collins himself directs the string players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. 

 

Alternative top choice

David Campbell

Clarinet Classics

Bursting with character and detail, David Campbell’s version on Clarinet Classics boasts vital support from Aurora Orchestra. Fast-paced and carefree, but not without sensitivity. Campbell employs plenty of rubato in a refreshing performance that vies for the top spot. 

 

The Thurston connection

Thea King

Hyperion

Dame Thea King provides a direct link back to Finzi and the concerto’s premiere. Thurston’s widow – and star pupil – is an important link between the composer and the new generation of performers, and this Hyperion disc will hold sentimental value for many listeners. 

 

Poetic reading

John Denman

Lyrita

John Denman’s recording – the concerto’s first – still holds up remarkably well. It is relaxed and improvisatory, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra providing glorious orchestral backing under Vernon Handley. It’s wonderful to have this Lyrita recording available on CD at last. 

 

Selected discography

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1977 Denman New Philh Orch / Handley / Lyrita SRCD236 (4/77R, 8/07)

1979 King Philh Orch / Francis / Hyperion CDH55101 (11/80R)

1987 Hacker English Stg Orch / Boughton / Nimbus NI5665; NI5210 (12/88R)

1990 Stoltzman Guildhall Stg Ens / Salter / RCA 88691 98911-2 (9/91R)

1991 Johnson RPO / Groves ASV / CDDCA787 (6/92)

1995 Plane Northern Sinf / Griffiths / Naxos 8 553566 (12/98)

1996 A Marriner ASMF / N Marriner / Decca 473 719-2DH (9/97R)

1997 Donaghue Russe State PO / Sleeper / Centaur / CRC2453 (7/01)

1999 J Campbell Manitoba CO / Streatfeild / CBC SMCD5204

2008 D Campbell Aurora Orch / Collon / Clarinet Classics CC0057

2009 Williamson Orch of the Swan / Curtis / Somm SOMMCD244 (6/10)

2012 Collins BBC SO Chandos / CHAN 10739 (1/13)

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