There are many good recordings of Finzi’s masterpiece
Dies Natalis op. 8 but relatively few of Intimations
of Immortality op. 29. Only two recordings are readily
available, one with Philip Langridge (Hickox, Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic, 1988) and another with John Mark Ainsley (Best,
Corydon Orchestra and chorus, 1996). The surprise is that
this new recording is so good it exceeds even the high standards
of its predecessors. This is the one to get, on nearly every
Intimations is a blockbuster, a spectacular on a massive scale. As
Finzi himself joked, it was a “hell of a noise, but rather
a wonderful noise all told”. It certainly is ambitious, requiring
a large orchestra, a well trained big chorus and a tenor with
the fortitude to sustain 45 minutes of singing against a loud
background. Finzi attempts to match the grand, stirring verse
of Wordsworth with an equally expansive orchestral setting.
For a composer whose strength was in chamber and choral music
and song, it is quite an achievement: in some ways it outdoes
Vaughan Williams in dramatic effects. Nonetheless, its very
sprawling ambitiousness, and the rush with which it was completed
for first performance in 1950 poses problems. This means all
the more that it needs to be performed with clear vision.
As with Dies Natalis, Intimations starts
with an Andante setting out the main themes to come: the horn
solo is particularly evocative, with its echoes of Arcadia. Then Gilchrist enters, pure and clear. Gilchrist’s voice is remarkably
beautiful, pure and clear. Ainsley brings a highly refined,
magical quality to his singing: this baroque sensibility brings
out a deeply spiritual level to the text, which is utterly
appropriate and will remain a favourite of mine. But Gilchrist
has a more direct, almost conversational edge which expresses
profound conviction. His phrasing is immaculate, his diction
so clear that Wordsworth’s difficult long sentences come across
with a natural ease and flow. Wisely, the recording keeps
his voice in the foreground. Langridge’s more straightforward
singing is more recessed into the whole, which doesn’t help,
since the soloist’s role is so important.
David Hill has been conducting Finzi for years, and with
the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and chorus, he has fine
musicians to work with. The results show in by far the most
animated, vivacious playing of all three recordings. One of
the critical points for me is the xylophone solo which dominates
the fourth stanza. Stephen Banfield, one of the great Finzi
commentators, calls it, charitably, “ragtime”, though what
place ragtime has in Wordsworth, I don’t know. Of course it’s
cheerful, but in the Best/Corydon recording in particular
it reminds me far too much of “The Donkey Serenade”,
a concept totally jarring to the ideas in Wordsworth and the
general thrust of the music, and spoils the recording. Hickox
may not mute its effect, but doesn’t overemphasize it, either.
Hill thoughtfully tones it down and keeps it more integrated
with the rest of the orchestra and the choir, so it does not
jar quite so much. Indeed, he gets from his players a clarity
and liveliness that complements Gilchrist’s expressive singing.
This is one of the strengths of this recording, as balancing
the constituent parts of the piece make it flow with more
spirit and feeling. What Finzi may have been seeking, after
all, was a profound emotional charge, so as to equal Wordsworth’s
intense poetry. While the Langridge/Hickox recording has its
merits, it’s far more conservative and unadventurous. It doesn’t
capture the sense of wonder and excitement that Finzi’s spectacular
setting seems to cry out for.
Indeed, what strikes me about his setting is its “technicolor”
elements: great surges of volume, intense chromatics, lushly
romantic voices and strings in particular. It’s not surprising
that the Hollywood musician Bernard Herrmann was one of the first to appreciate
the work for what it was. Hollywood may have
bad connotations in conservative eyes, but in those dark days
of post-war austerity, it meant something quite different.
If Finzi sought the ebullient and the upbeat, it seems quite
natural that he should have written music whose boundless
optimism transcended parochial convention. It’s no defect.
Indeed, Banfield calls the chirpy little melody that illustrates
the words “this sweet May morning” as “one of most sly pieces
of mickey-mousing outside Hollywood”. Finzi’s good humour meant he was no po-faced musical
snob. Gilchrist, Hill and the Bournemouth musicians
seem to understand Finzi’s quintessential approach, so their
bright, vivacious performance is more in keeping with the
composer’s vision than their rather staid predecessors.
Finzi ends the work with a sparsely orchestrated, exquisitely
elegant simplicity, all the more profound for its contrast
with what went before. In this final stanza, Gilchrist’s singing
is almost surreally beautiful. The way he sings “another
race have been, and other palms are won” gives me goosebumps,
for so clearly does he evoke “Thoughts that do often lie
too deep for tears”.
The recording is followed by the Ceremonial Ode For
St Cecilia, to words by Edmund Blunden, Finzi’s friend.
It gets a fine performance but isn’t in the league of Intimations.
This is an amazing recording, easily the most intelligently
thought through. With it, Naxos
has scored a triumph, for this should be an essential recording
for anyone interested in English music or art song as a genre.
A lot of “bargain” recordings are rubbish, and no real bargain,
but this one would be a steal even at top price. I hope Naxos realize what a treasure they have here.
see also Reviews
by Jonathan Woolf and Rob