Finzi Flourishes, by David Hart

Finzi flourishes frame festival
By David Hart

How fitting that an event promoted by Finzi Friends should begin and end with songs by Gerald Finzi. After all, who else so epitomises Englishness? Well, Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth for a start; and if you want to delve further, E.J. Moeran, John Ireland and Roger Quilter among others.

But it was Finzi who provided – as Iain Burnside, artistic director and indefatigable pianist in five of the six concerts put it – the structural pillars of this lovely little festival, with the elegant, burnished-tone baritone Howard Wong singing Thomas Hardy settings on Friday afternoon, and Brett Polegato finishing his recital yesterday with Finzi’s valedictory cycle Before and After Summer.

This being Ludlo, and A.E. Housman’s mythical county of association, we also heard a generous selection of settings from A Shropshire Lad, superbly presented by the tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Roderick Williams on Saturday. Williams conveyed the elegiac sentiments of Moeran’s four Ludlow Town songs with considerable tenderness, while Butterworth’s ghostly duologue “Is my team ploughing?” sounded doubly emotional on a weekend so full of war memories.

However, Gilchrist’s exquisitely poised account of VW’s On Wenlock Edge, which Burnside and the excellent Tippett String Quartet played so magically, proved the ultimate highlight, with its impressionistic suggestions of misty mornings and church bells (“Bredon Hill” and “Clun”) wafting into an unbearably poignant, almost sacrificial silence.

Dame Felicity Lott’s Friday evening recital, Songs from this Island, was in effect a whole string of highlights. Perhaps Britten’s On this Island is not really her sort of music, although no-one can control a vocal line with such impeccable shading as she did in “Nocturne”; but she offered several familiar gems of the musically non-threatening kind, all delivered with her legendary elegance, flawless diction and radiant audience-engagement.

On Saturday evening Susan Bickley, a soprano whose warmth, clarity and sparkling personality may one day inherit Lott’s crown, gave a stunning first performance of Julian Philips’s An American Songbook, a refreshingly unsentimental yet muscularly romantic work which, in its use of jazz-inflected phrases and squelchy harmonies, has touches of a new generation Bernstein. By comparison the other premiere, Songs of Eternity and Sorrow by Ian Venables, was so gorgeously and unashamedly lyrical in its tonal language – and very well sung too by tenor Andrew Kennedy – you felt even Finzi himself would have been proud to own it.