A very welcome addition to Naxos’s burgeoning collection of English
I was delighted to see James Gilchrist’s presence as soloist,
as I have been deeply impressed by the live performances he
has given in recent years of British works, and by his dedication
to, and championing of, this wonderful music.
In setting Wordsworth’s ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early
Years – a lament for the loss of the intuitive, almost
spiritual, joys and visions of childhood – Finzi created one
of the greatest British choral works of the twentieth century.
Although started in the late 1930s, the work was not finished
until 1950, when it was given its premiere at the Gloucester
Three Choirs Festival with Herbert Sumsion conducting.
From the very first note of the Naxos disc, the atmosphere is gripping,
and full of a tense excitement. The BSO and BSC produce a
lush and rich sound, and Gilchrist’s distinctively muscular
yet smooth, warm and gorgeous tones, beautiful enunciation
and well-controlled vibrato add to the extremely apt pervading
sense of nostalgia.
The performance is taken at a good pace as a general rule
– a little faster than the 1996 Hyperion recording - with
John Mark Ainsley and the Corydon Orchestra and Singers conducted
by Matthew Best, a worthy competitor - and has good rhythmic
drive, as exemplified in Now, while the birds thus sing
a joyous song, which is nicely snappy. Gilchrist captures
the wistfulness of the piece perfectly in But there's a
Tree, of many, one and the glorious O joy! That in
our embers is quite radiant. I love the playful joy with
which Gilchrist sings the word “pleasures” in Earth fills
her lap with pleasures of her own – and in these moments
of delight and happiness, Gilchrist and the BSO and BSC dance,
and the music brims with a tremendous sense of joy and fun
- more so than on the Hyperion disc.
On the whole, Gilchrist’s voice is softer and more effeminate,
yet at the same time comes across as bolder and more confident,
than John Mark Ainsley, although Ainsley is more vibrant and
resonant, and stops only just short of too much vibrato to
my ears. However, the Naxos disc is given a head start by
a far nicer recording sound. The balance is much better on
Naxos, and the - closer mike-d, it sounds
- soloist more audible against the chorus and orchestra. In
Oh evil day! If I were sullen, for example, John Mark
Ainsley is nearly drowned out by the chorus. Yet the Hyperion
recording is, if slightly less beautiful than the Naxos, more intense. Listen to Ye
blessed Creatures, 1 have heard the call - it is more
dramatic, sinister and harsher than the Naxos version - the harshness partly
due to the recording - and, as such, is slightly more effective.
Similarly, Ainsley’s But there's a Tree, of many, one is
more harrowing – he takes it more slowly, and it is starker,
wilder and full of a desperate melancholy. The climaxes on
Hyperion are more ecstatic. Listen to the opening of Then
sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!; not just faster
in Hyperion, but more exultant too, whilst Naxos is
more restrained. There is a more profound sense of stillness,
calmness and translucent beauty in Hyperion’s And O, ye
Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, which means a greater
contrast when we get to the livelier “I love the brooks”...
The ending of Intimations of Immortality is sublime
in both recordings.
The second work on the Naxos disc is For St Cecilia, which was commissioned for the 1947 St Cecilia’s
Day Festival. The words are by the poet Edmund Blunden, Finzi’s
contemporary. Finzi – a deeply literary man himself, and whose
consummate craftsmanship shows itself at its best when setting
words - corresponded with Blunden to refine the text to its
current form. There is some stunning word and imagery painting
in the portrayal of the saints, composers and instruments.
The Hyperion disc includes Dies Natalis as an opener.
On the whole, this Naxos disc is one that I would recommend to both people looking for a recording
of Intimations, and to those who already have the Hyperion
recording. I couldn’t possibly choose between them for quality
of soloist, chorus and orchestra – I prefer Gilchrist and
Naxos for some movements, and Ainsley and Hyperion for others.
A decision between the two would have to come purely down
to recording – in which case Naxos wins hands down with its clear,
warmer, more intimate sound and better balance. One probably
ought to mention here that Philip Langridge’s version on EMI
with Hickox is another superlative recording, which I have
omitted to discuss here for reasons of length – but would
again be one that I can highly recommend. However, this Naxos disc is a very safe bet anyway,
with lively and sensitive performances from choir and orchestra
and lithe, characterful and astute singing from Gilchrist,
who combines luscious beauty of tone with technical ability,
emotional involvement and intuitive understanding and communication
of both words and music.
see also Reviews
by Anne Ozorio, Jonathan
Woolf and Rob
for reviews of other Naxos recordings of British composers, see