Friday 12 September 2014

The Story Tenor - 24 songs by Gerald Finzi

The Story Tenor
This new disc from tenor John Beaumont (The Story Tenor) and pianist Charles Matthews puts together three of Gerald Finzi's song cycles, A Young Man's Exhortation, Op 14 (premiered in 1933) setting Thomas Hardy, Till Earth outwears Op 19 also setting Thomas Hardy and Oh Fair to see Op 13B setting a variety of poets. Apart from A Young Man's Exhortation the other two are more strictly song sets. Finzi tended to accumulated songs in groups rather than release them individually, though Till Earth outwears was assembled after Finzi's death. Beaumont and Matthews have recorded the songs in a single mammoth session (8 hours) and the results are intended to have the immediacy of a live recording.

Beaumont is a choral tenor of some experience and in his notes to this recording he describes how the recording, his first solo CD, came about as the result of a change in teacher, a development of his technique and a concern for singing as 'talking at pitch'. It is a concern for words and their interaction with music which is Beaumont's prime concern on this disc.

The majority of words are by Thomas Hardy, in many ways a rather surprising poet to be the subject of so many songs. At first hearing, Hardy's poems are profoundly wordy and this comes over in the songs. Finzi set Hardy's poems throughout his life from the 1920's until just before his death in 1956. The two men may have met (both attended the 1919 Glastonbury Festival), and Finzi bought Hardy's walking stick after the writer's death. In all, Finzi set over 50 of Hardy's poems and of his nine song cycles six are to poems by Hardy.  In fact, they are hardly cycles at all more like song-sets. And even A Young man's exhortation, though a formal cycle, has no strict narrative. But within this there are themes, notably the futility of war, the passing of time and the wonder of natural beauty.

John Beaumont
John Beaumont
The songs are predominantly melancholy and what struck me, listening to the disc from start to finish, was how much consistency of tone there was. I am sure that details changed in Finzi's technique over the years, but you feel that his approach to setting Hardy did not.

The performances from Beaumont and Matthews have a wonderful vibrancy and immediacy. It is clear that some songs, as Beaumont describes in his notes, were laid down 'warts and all', but in the context of a vividly narrated sequence of songs this hardly matters. Beaumont does not have a conventional English lyric tenor voice and it has to be said that his timbre is not always ideally relaxed but then the songs are far more complex and darker than some interpretations allow for.

Since first hearing the disc, I have been trying to think of a suitable analogy which will describe Beaumont's style and technique. I think that the closest I can come is to the singing of the baritone John Carol Case (himself associated with English song). Beaumont has the same wonderful clarity of diction combined with a richly interesting timbre.

The CD does not include the text of the songs, but that hardly matters as the way Beaumont conveys both the words and their meaning is entirely admirable. Not only is there clarity, there is also a naturalness as he makes sense of Finzi's setting of Hardy's complex lines. Throughout the disc Beaumont is well supported by Charles Matthews who conveys the poetry implicit in Finzi's writing.

I must, at this point, declare something of an interest. Whilst I was sent this disc by a third party, my professional relationship with John goes back some way and he has sung in the premieres of a number of my pieces, choral pieces as well as my opera When a Man Knows (and can be seen on the video of the opera).

You will probably want to have other recordings of Finzi songs on your shelves, having them sung by a lyric tenor like Martyn Hall or Mark Padmore is a boon and a delight. But Beaumont and Matthews approach pays rich dividends and deserves attention.

A YOUNG MAN’S EXHORTATION OP. 14 [Set to poems by Thomas Hardy]
1. A Young Man’s Exhortation
2. Ditty
3. Budmouth Dears
4. Her Temple
5. The Comet At Yell’ham
6. Shortening Days
7. The Sigh
8. Former Beauties
9. Transformations
10. The Dance Continued

TILL EARTH OUTWEARS OP. 19 [Set to poems by Thomas Hardy]
11. Let Me Enjoy The Earth
12. In Years Defaced
13. The Market-Girl
14. I Look Into My Glass
15. It Never Looks Like Summer
16. At A Lunar Eclipse
17. Life Laughs Onward

OH FAIR TO SEE OP. 13B [Set to works by various poets]
18. I Say, “I’ll Seek Her” (Thomas Hardy)

19. Oh Fair To See (Christina Rossetti)

20. As I Lay In The Early Sun (Edward Shanks)
21. Only The Wanderer (Ivor Gurney)

22. To Joy (Edmund Blunden)

23. Harvest (Edmund Blunden)

24. Since We Loved (Robert Bridges)

John Beaumont (tenor)
Charles Matthews (piano)
Recorded in The Nimbus Foundation's Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouthshire, in one 10-hour session from 10.00am - 8.00pm with multiple coffee & tea breaks; Friday 29th November 2013.
CD in digifile + booklet - 24 tracks - 59 mins
Buy direct from TouchShop.

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