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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Intimations of Immortality op. 29 (1949-50) [38:58]
For Saint Cecilia op. 30 (1947) [16:37]
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus/Greg Beardsell
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. The Concert Hall, The Lighthouse, Poole, 4-5 June 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557863 [55:35]
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Naxos preside over a warm and richly detailed recording of one of Finzi's most ambitious works as well as one of his most enjoyably celebratory pieces. Intimations is to St Cecilia what Walton's Belshazzar is to the Gloria. Both Finzi works are in their more animated passages gratefully indebted to Walton and specifically to Belshazzar (eg tr. 4 4.10).

The tenor has a central place in both works and Finzi gives him plenty to do. Gilchrist has already established his Finzi credentials via a Delphian song recital warmly welcomed by Anne Ozorio. review For this reason and having heard the Delphian disc myself, I had high hopes for this version. As ever Gilchrist shows intelligent engagement with the words. His voice lacks the white opalescence of tone of Partridge and before him of Wilfred Brown. Gilchrist’s tone is slightly nasal in the line gloriously established by Gerald English and then less pleasingly by Robert Tear.

Intimations was long in the creation having been started in the 1930s. The subject of passing time, loss and specifically the loss of innocence were central to Finzi’s creative processes. It can for example be found in the numerous Hardy songs and in the Flecker setting in the cycle To a Poet. It’s a theme that recurs time and again throughout his vocal works and is probably a subtext in every one of his pieces. It is no wonder that Finzi was drawn to Wordsworth’s Ode with its musings on the passing of childhood and the narrowing of the ‘visionary gleam’ as adult concerns intrude. Intimations is in some ways the fuller expression of the ecstasy hymned in his much earlier Dies Natalis. Both works turn to childhood for mystical rapture.

Intimations is a cruelly demanding work for a tenor concerned to present the words with the clarity they demand and with Finzi the conveying of meaning is crucial. The words are no mere add-on. The telling concatenation of music and words touches off delight. Tastes vary but I have always found the articulation of sung words damaged by vibrato. Gilchrist is good as his Delphian recital proved but he is not exempt from this issue. Listen to the beat in the voice in the words light and glory and earth (trs. 2 and 3). On the other hand no-one has sung with such an awed feeling of eternity and the mysteries Of the eternal silence (tr. 11 1:10). In that case Gilchrist is steady as a rock. There are some transiently disorientating moments too; not many but one is where Gilchrist’s pronunciation of the word ‘fountains’ comes out as ‘fountins’ not ‘fountAIns’ or even ‘FountENs’. There should have been more hushed mystery in Gilchrist’s singing of The pansy at my feet doth the same tale repeat (tr. 7 1.03) and over the word vanishings (1:47 in tr. 10). All of this said Gilchrist’s performance remains outstanding and if I seem critical it is because for years I imprinted on the Partridge version which is of little value to readers since it has never been transferred to CD and there are no indications that it ever will be.

David Hill is no stranger to Finzi and has been conducting his works for years. His In terra Pax is on Decca 468 807-2 and is excellent. Quite apart from the rumba and romp of the celebratory sections Hill has a good eye for the abundant poetry of this score. In the best hands Intimations can be unbearably poignant for a listener. Take, for example, the heart's-ease shimmer at Forbode not any severing of our loves. While the Naxos technical team fail to italicise some solo entries in quite the way Ian Partridge's and Vernon Handley's Guildford-Lyrita team did in 1974 there are some superbly effective moments along the way. Try the discreetly gleaming string sigh behind the sung words ‘those shadowy recollections’ (tr. 11, 00.08). Hill introduces some unusual approaches as well. Take, for example, the urgent accelerations of Shout round me. A momentary blemish is that the xylophone sounds as if it is suffering a serious joy-deficit, an accusation you could never level at the GPO percussionist. While this scouting of exuberance is regrettable this is compensated for in the demonstrative passages by the wild-eyed singing of a big-sounding choir.

This is the fourth commercially recorded version of Intimations. The first (and the best) is the Lyrita LP SRCS75 with Ian Partridge, Guildford Phil forces and Vernon Handley. This has never made it to CD - more's the pity. Then there are CDs from EMI (Hickox) and Hyperion both of which suffer from tenors (Langridge and Ainsley) who are afflicted with a sometimes woeful vibrato. This is doubly tragic in the case of Langridge whose early 1970s broadcast with the BBC Concert Orchestra found him in much steadier voice.

Finzi’s For Cecilia was a commissioned work. It was premiered on 22 November 1947 at the RAH by René Soames with the Luton Choral Society and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. The words are by Edmund Blunden (1896-1974). Blunden and Finzi worked together closely over the words as we are now reminded in Diana McVeagh’s biography. review.

This Cecilia is the second commercial recording and it is very good indeed. It may not have quite the Decca house-sound but the fffs open out smartly. Oddly enough Gilchrist is also in better voice in Cecilia than he is in Intimations. Hill’s version is up against a recording made by Argo in 1979 during the second flush of the Finzi renaissance. This was performed by Philip Langridge, the LSO, the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Richard Hickox on LP 425 660-2 (Dies; Cecilia, 1978). This was then reissued in two Finzi anthologies: CD 425 660-2 in the early 1990s and most recently on the British Music Collection 468 807-2. review

The notes for this Naxos disc are by Finzi luminary, Andrew Burn. The release is completed by the sung texts reproduced in full in the insert.

No Finzian can afford to be without this disc and those who have dabbled with Finzi through Classic FM bon-bons will find this and the other Naxos Finzi discs cello concerto and clarinet concerto a very inexpensive way of hearing some of the best of Finzi.

Rob Barnett


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