LABELS: Wigmore Hall Live
ALBUM TITLE: Finzi, Walton
WORKS: Dies Natalis; Romance for strings, Sonata for strings
PERFORMER: Toby Spence (tenor); Scottish Ensemble/Jonathan Morton
CATALOGUE NO: 21
Finzi may not have been a hugely versatile composer. You could say that he found one musical vein and concentrated on mining that. But in the process he often struck gold: and never more so than in the delicious little Romance for string orchestra. This is a relatively small-scale version, with the Scottish Ensemble forces barely reaching into double figures. But with playing of such tenderness, elegance and fine tonal balance that’s no problem at all. The recorded sound may seem a little boxed in at first, but it does allow just enough acoustic bloom around the players without swamping the textures; even when the harmony is at its richest Finzi’s finely wrought counterpoint deserves to be heard clearly.Toby Spence’s singing in Dies Natalis is also rather special. On the one hand his musical phrasing is beautiful: the lines hover and soar just as they should. Yet at the same time he brings freshness and fluidity to the recitative-like passages, combined with strong feeling for the expressive weight of each word, which gives these moments the urgency of impassioned speech. Listening to this you might end up wondering if Finzi wasn’t an even finer word-setter than Britten. It is this quality, above all, that inclines me to prefer Spence even to the excellent John Mark Ainsley on Hyperion – a more rounded recorded sound, and great clarity in conception and delivery, but not quite so much focused passion. The Walton Sonata for strings (a reworking of the 1947 String Quartet) is much more than a makeweight, and the Scottish Ensemble make an unusually strong case for it.