Listen: Gerald Finzi Cello Concerto in A Minor

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Active engagement with works of art. Special treats.

I came to Gerald Finzi’s Cello Concerto via a tweet from Shostakovich devotee Laura Del Col Brown. I can’t easily find the tweet now, but it was another example of how I’m getting introduced to previously unlistened-to works. By chance.

It wasn’t quite like the Herbert Howells. There was an element of surprise to discovering Gerald Finzi’s Cello Concerto. Laura was comparing it to Dvorak’s Cello Concerto (I think she was attending a concert at the time, I can’t remember for sure). But the effect of just learning of Gerald Finzi’s concerto was enough for me – the equivalent of the hit you get when a beautifully constructed canape hits your unsuspecting taste buds.

On a first listen, the first movement of Gerald Finzi’s last substantial work has an epic feel to it. Operatic. Not opulent, but vast. The opening statement – punchy, unrelenting and efficient – lays it all out: there’s stuff we need to deal with here; we all need to deal with it together if we’re to stand a chance of dealing with it all.

I hear a range of zingy colours in the first movement. I also hear a constantly shifting thing, though completely at ease with itself. I hear Britishness too. That rather awkward acknowledgement that there is beauty in everything that surrounds you, but its a hard-earned beauty and as a result not perfect in every corner.

The second movement was a real shock the first time I heard it. Its pastoral-ness seemed trite in comparison to what had gone before. It was as though this was the music that was written first, and that the first movement had been tacked on with sellotape when a publisher said to Finzi down the phone, “You’ve got something there darling.”

It was only later when I read up about the work’s backstory that Finzi had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease four years before it was written, and that the second movement was intended as a musical portrait of his wife. Poignant.

It’s heartfelt too. And when I hear the second movement I end up concluding how Gerald Finzi’s concerto is a far more plausible musical statement on Britishness than the comparatively nauseating jingoism of Elgar’s work for the same instrument. Gerald uses longer more expansive melodies. The music isn’t quite so fractured or fraught. I do hear sentimentality but it’s not cloying like Elgar’s.

Controversial. Come at me with sticks. Whatevs.

The final movement – stately, proud and painfully humble – lunges between distinctiveness, celebration, and moments of tweeness. I’m not sure about its final credentials. It could be a relatively undiscovered gem or it could be something the cognascenti overlook with good reason. Not sure yet. More on that story later.

But I do like its main theme – you’ll hear it blasted out in the full orchestra and, mid-way through, in the woodwind. There’s an exuberance quality to it that makes me want it to carry on for longer than it actually does. Maybe that’s Finzi’s intent: snatches of melodic interest that grab attention and set you on what you think is a familiar and predictable path. Where you end up is somewhere entirely different.

At the point of writing I was listening to the work for a third time. Necessary. I didn’t find it challenging, more demanding repeat listens. Perhaps the most demanding thing I’ve listened to in this series. And by demanding, I don’t mean ‘I never want to hear this again’ kind of way. Just that it needs repeat listens to feel completely at ease with it. That someone would have created something that demanded repeat listens is, quite frankly, a genius. Who wants to work something out in the space of 45 minutes?


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