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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Dies natalis (I. Intrada; II. Rhapsody; III. The Rapture; IV. Wonder; V. The Salutation) (1925-1939) [26:16]
Prelude for String Orchestra (1929) [4:36]
The Fall of the Leaf (Elegy) (compl. Howard Ferguson) (1929) [9:34]
Two Sonnets for Tenor and Orchestra (I. When I consider; II. How soon hath Time) (1928) [7:37]
Nocturne (New Year Music) (1928, rev. 1940s) [9:39]
Farewell to Arms (I. Introduction; II. Aria) (1926-8, 1940s) [9:01]
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, 5-6 June 2007. DDD
recording made possible by the Finzi Trust
NAXOS 8.570417 [66:40]
Experience Classicsonline

When I think of Finzi’s Dies Natalis my reference version is Wilfred Brown’s fine recording with the composer’s son conducting. But this recording is getting on a bit now and it is natural that people might want one recorded more recently. Now two have appeared almost simultaneously.
Toby Spence’s recording with the Scottish Ensemble has just appeared on the Wigmore Hall Live label and this disc has appeared from Naxos.
As the label suggests, the Wigmore Hall Live recording is a transcription of a concert given by Spence and the Scottish Ensemble. It couples the Finzi work with Walton’s Sonata for Strings and Finzi’s Romance, Op. 11, whereas Gilchrist and Hill give us a complete recital of works by Finzi. They have already issued a disc containing For St. Cecilia and Intimations of Immortality on Naxos (see review) so this disc is starting to look like the second in a series.
Finzi seems to have taken considerable time completing works. Dies Natalis itself had a gestation period of nearly twenty years. Sometimes works never materialised; this is the case with his orchestral triptych The Bud, The Blossom and The Berry, which was to be on the subject of the seasons. The Bud movement eventually became the Prelude for String Orchestra having passed through piano-duet form en-route. Similarly the Berry movement was turned into a piano duet and about a third of it was orchestrated. This orchestration was completed after Finzi’s death by his friend and musical executor Howard Ferguson and then became The Fall of the Leaf (Elegy).
Both these works started out in the 1920s and in 1928 Finzi also completed his Two Sonnets, setting John Milton. After the premiere, where the solo part was sung by Steuart Wilson, Finzi was taken to task for setting words which defied setting. He replied robustly, but I can see the critic’s point of view; there is something so extremely wordy about the Milton. Luckily Gilchrist’s mellifluous tone and Finzi’s lovely music go a long way towards making things acceptable. Sorry if I sound less than enthusiastic, but one thing that I found on repeated listening was how Finzi seemed to like setting wordy 17th century divines, rather than more succinct poets.
Nocturne (New Year’s Music) also dates from the 1920s but was revised in the 1940s. It was inspired by Charles Lamb’s New Year’s Eve essay and Robert Bridges’ poem Noel: Christmas Eve 1913. The mood reflects Lamb’s sober sadness; Hill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra capture this spirit of quiet melancholy rather well, with the contrasting livelier mood in the middle section.
Yet more 17th century poets appear in Farewell to Arms. Initially Finzi set a sonnet from George Peele’s Polyhymnia but later on found that Ralph Knevet’s poem The helmet now shared imagery with it and this became the Introduction. The piece is notable for the beautifully expressive and fluid recitative which Finzi created, and the ever-present mood of melancholy arising from the knowledge of the brevity of life.
But, the major work on this disc is Dies Natalis and you will be wondering why I’ve not yet mentioned the performance yet. In many ways Gilchrist, Hill and the Bournemouth orchestra provide a fine performance. Hill has the feel of this music, the performance is admirably fluid and flows beautifully. In concert Gilchrist has a lovely lyric voice and would seem an ideal interpreter, but something seems to have gone wrong.
In his review of their previous disc, John Steane complained about the way Gilchrist’s voice was too closely recorded. I wondered whether something similar had happened here. Generally the balance with the orchestra is fine but when Gilchrist’s voice goes under pressure at the top we sense a loss of the feeling for the line and a widening of vibrato, a general feeling of stress.
This is a shame because there are many things that are deeply likeable about these performances. Many people will find Gilchrist entirely admirable but I would urge you to find a way to listen before you buy. If you already have a good account of Dies Natalis then I would urge you to try this disc because the additional items are well worth the listen. There is far more in Finzi than the two or three works which get recorded regularly.
Robert Hugill

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Michael Cookson

Comparative reviews
Sonnets and Farewell to Arms: Lyrita SRCD237
Fall of the Leaf and Prelude: Lyrita SRCD239
Dies Natalis (Langridge): Decca Collection 4762163
Dies Natalis (Langridge): Decca British Music 4688072

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