Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Dies Natalis Op. 8 (1939) [42:15] Intimations of Immortality Op. 29 (1949) [24:20]
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Corydon Singers and Orchestra/Matthew Best
rec. 8-10 February 1996, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
Originally issued on Hyperion CDA66876
Texts included HYPERION HELIOS CDH55432 [66:47]
The coupling of Finzi’s largest-scale score Intimations of Immortality with his other work based on the theme of childhood innocence Dies natalis is such an obvious one that it is surprising that no release except this one has ever combined the two.
For many years indeed, while Dies natalis was one of Finzi’s most popular and recorded scores, Intimations laboured under something of a cloud which went right back to the critical disdain with which it was treated in some quarters at the time of its first performance. It was not until 1975 that it first appeared on disc, in a Lyrita LP conducted by Vernon Handley that has subsequently found its way onto CD and was rapturously received by Rob Barnett in his review
for this site. Although it was an analogue recording it convincingly resolved some real problems that Finzi created in his scoring of the work, which perhaps deserve some more detailed exploration.
Although Finzi had been working on his setting of Wordsworth’s ode for many years, the final preparation for the first performance seems to have been something of a rushed job. This might explain the rather literal recurrence of the Holst-like dance of joy towards the end of the work, where a more considered approach (or possible later revision) might have cut back on the excited xylophone passages which don’t really evoke the image of a shepherd boy. It would also serve to explain the rather curious nature of the part Finzi wrote for the tenor soloist. Although he clearly expected a lyric tenor to deliver many of the lines, at other points he surrounds the solo voice with choral and orchestral textures which make it very difficult indeed for the tenor to make himself heard – as I can testify from a live performance in Hereford Cathedral which I attended in the early 1980s. In order to obtain a satisfactory balance for recording, therefore, it is almost essential to favour the soloist to a certain extent in the placement of the microphone. In the Lyrita recording Ian Partridge — not a large-voiced singer — comes through with just about the ideal measure of clarity. When Richard Hickox came to record the work some years later, Philip Langridge’s somewhat larger voice was placed further back in the mix with two rather undesirable results (review). Firstly, the delicate passages such as “The rainbow comes and goes” tended to recede into the choral texture in a manner that blurred the melodic line. Secondly, the necessity for Langridge to force his voice is all too evident at times, resulting in unsteadiness that sometimes approaches unpleasantness. Both these recordings were made in large concert halls, which is clearly appropriate to the overall sound required. Lyrita seem to have appreciated the problems this causes more than EMI for Hickox.
Here John Mark Ainsley has clearly been assisted to a greater or lesser degree by the microphones, and the results are more satisfactory than with Langridge on EMI. The orchestral sound is more closely integrated than with Handley on Lyrita, with the xylophone for example less obtrusively forward in the balance. The results, recorded in a smaller location, do not altogether escape from a sense of artificiality. The sound is that of a church performance closely observed, not at all unpleasant but somehow lacking the naturally expansive acoustic that one might desire. Matthew Best and his Corydon forces have an enviable reputation for their performances of English choral music. These include an absolutely superb recording of Vaughan Williams' neglected Lord, thou hast been our refuge which is one of my all-time favourites. The present recording just misses that sense of superlative excellence which one finds elsewhere.
Ainsley, despite the assistance from the microphones, lacks the clarity of diction that one finds with Partridge. Hyperion commendably supply the complete text of the Wordsworth ode (including the verses that Finzi did not set, highlighted in italics in the booklet) but one does find that one really needs them in order to follow the words in a way that was not so essential in the Lyrita recording. The same lack of clarity is also evident in the performance of Dies natalis. Here the touchstone must be that by Wilfred Brown made in the 1960s and conducted by the composer’s son Christopher where not only was every word crystal-clear but where the sense of ecstasy in the Rapture was unequalled. Ainsley is decidedly superior to the unsteady Philip Langridge (EMI Classics) and Martyn Hill (Virgin Classics) who sang the role for Richard Hickox’s two later recordings. His delivery of lines such as “the corn was orient and immortal wheat” has just the right sense of withdrawn mystery that the words demand.
In the final analysis I do not think it is simply the fact that I initially encountered these two thrilling works in the old performances featuring Ian Partridge and Wilfred Brown that gives me a preference for those original recordings. This is despite their evidently ageing analogue sound and other defects. At the same time the coupling of these two works is so self-evidently right that nobody who acquires this reissue need feel at all that they are settling for second-best. The recording quality is considerably superior to that found on the old Lyrita and EMI issues. Anybody who does not know either of these scores is in for a real treat, and the Hyperion Helios booklet gives all the information that was to be found in the original full price Hyperion release. Reviewers on this site have also recommended the Naxos release of the Intimations of Immortality as even better, but the couple of For St Cecilia is less appropriate unless purchasers already have Dies natalis in their collection.