Knowing Gerald Finzi mostly from his much-admired Clarinet Concerto, I was really bowled over by the present disc. The quietly pastoral is not the only mood that Finzi's muse was capable of. The Cello Concerto is alternately passionate and boisterous, the first movement restless and deeply troubled, the last "jocund" in the words of Andrew Burn, who wrote the notes for this recording. That's a good description, but the last movement is so full of life that "jocund" doesn't quite cover it.
If there is a program to this concerto, it probably has to do with the circumstances under which the work was composed. Finzi started writing the concerto soon after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a certain death sentence in the 1950s--hence the troubled air of the first movement and the jaunty life-affirmation of the last, in the evident belief that some part of all of us goes on living after our demise. As Andrew Burn asks, does the serene middle movement, whose theme returns in the final rondo, suggest that Finzi was reconciled to his fate? The beauty of the work is that it so bravely combines all these disparate moods by turns and makes a cogent emotional statement out of them, even if we don't know the final answer to Burn's question. It's a superb concerto, and given the fact that the cello repertoire is hardly bursting with great concertos, it's a wonder the Finzi isn't programmed much more often.
The Eclogue--sweetly tender without ever turning maudlin--is what we might think of as typical Finzi. But then the Grand Fantasia and Toccata, again, is atypical Finzi--a big, bold piece of virtuoso display based on, of all composers, Bach. The Fantasia part of the work is cerebral, monumental, granitic, while the Toccata is a jazzy romp a la Walton--only better than most Walton in this vein.
These works written toward the end of his life (except for the Eclogue) hint that Finzi was still growing as a composer and would have had much more to say but for his untimely death. So we can be thankful for what we have here, lovingly performed by Hugh, Donohoe, and Griffiths. This is certainly one of the finest offerings among Naxos's recordings of composers from the British Isles.