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Penguin Guide, January 2009

A generally recommendable version of Finzi’s impressive Intimations of Immortality. James Gilchrist is impressive throughout, though not without moments of too much vibrato, but not enough to seriously mar one’s enjoyment. He is capable of moments of much beauty too, such as on the words ‘Of the eternal silence’ (track 11) which is quite magical. This version is perhaps not up to the level of Handley’s classic Lyrita recording with Ian Partridge, but it is very good all the same, especially with excellent playing and singing from Hill’s Bournemouth forces, and excellent sound. There is plenty of excitement in such numbers as Now, while the birds sing a joyous song, and the entry of the following Ye blessed Creatures has real impact, but there is plenty of atmosphere too in Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. The freshly enjoyable St Cecilia Ode was commissioned by the St Cecilia’s Day Festival committee for their 1947 celebration of music’s patron saint. There is plenty of lively celebrational writing in the outer movements of the work, while the middle sections have much pastoral charm.

Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, November 2006

A very welcome addition to Naxos’s burgeoning collection of English music releases!

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.

American Record Guide, October 2006

Childhood innocence did not linger in the life of Gerald Finzi. The youngest of five children, Finzi grew up feeling alienated from his family. Mortality was no stranger, either: by age 17, he had lst his father, three brothers, and a beloved music teacher, Ernest Farrar, who was killed in The Great War. Small wonder that William Wordsworth's Recollections of Early Childhood, with its commentary on the loss of youthful innocence ("What though the radiance which was once so bright be now forever taken from my sight") should have captured the composer's attention. He began setting Wordsworth to music in the late 1930s, not completing the work now known as Intimations of Immortality until 1950.

The piece is vintage Finzi: sweeping melodies, lush, colorful orchestration, emphatic fealty to text, and a quintessentially British idiom that tips a cap to Elgar and Vaughan-Williams while remaining itself. I find it very moving, partly because Wordsworth speaks to me- a 53-year-old caught up in a dizzying panoply of mid-life changes- with uncommon directness, ("though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; we will grieve not." Sigh. I'm trying.) Anyway, for all its bitter-sweetness, the music is as rich and resolute as the text, running a gamut of emotions from sadness to stoicism to ringing exultation.

The performance here is strong, though chorally one could ask for more. Bournemouth sports a fine orchestra; and, spurred on by Maestro Hill, the players deliver plenty of passion and sweep. James Gilchrist is your basic honey-voiced British tenor, crooning his way through the score, over-enunciationg consonants as he goes. He's easy on the ear, but how many Rs do we really need in the word "fresh"? The kicker is the choir, which makes pleasant sounds but converys little in the way of poetic oomph owing to namby-pamby diction and indifferent engineering, which buries the singers beneath the orchestral textures and never lets them up. This continues into St Cecilia, yet another lovely work, where the choir can sound gorgeous one minute and fall out of the sonic frame the next.

Your decision is made easier by the relative dearth of competition in the 40-minute Intimations. There is an EMI release (64720) with tenor Philip Langridge and Richard Hickox on the podiumm as well as Hyperion 66876, a more intimate reading conducted by Matthew Best with John Mark Ainsley handling the solos. But, choral amnesia aside, this one has many virtues and its general availability at the Naxos price sweetens the pot further for Finzians.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, August 2006

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. 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.

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.

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.

Anne Ozorio
MusicWeb International, August 2006

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 count.

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.

David Hurwitz, July 2006

This disc represents an easy first choice in Finzi's Intimations of Immortality, one of the masterpieces of the English choral literature and a surprisingly neglected one too. Its only serious competition comes from Richard Hickox on EMI (if it's still in print) and Matthew Best on Hyperion (a very good version, if not quite as orchestrally polished as this). David Hill has one advantage over everyone: his is simply the most exciting performance available, not just a function of swift tempos, but also in terms of the acuity and enthusiasm of the instrumental response to the music's bold contrasts and driving climaxes.

With James Gilchrist, a very fine tenor soloist, singing with impressive clarity of diction and very little of that traditionally English, pinched tone quality, the overall picture only gets better. It may be that in his own Corydon Singers Best has a finer contingent of massed voices, but the Bournemouth choir certainly does as well as Hickox's Liverpool forces. The coupling is equally impressive: a resounding performance of the ebullient ceremonial ode For St. Cecilia (Hickox offers the Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano and orchestra, Best the gentle cantata Dies Natalis). At Naxos' budget price, this is an easy call. Buy it!

Classic FM

One of the finest Finzi recordings ever committed to posterity.

We’ve all grown used to Naxos winners. Perhaps we even take the artistic quality of much of the budget label’s output for granted. But this disc is up there with the finest money can buy, a red-letter recording of Finzi’s masterpiece, Intimations of Immortality, and an unbeatable introduction to the composer’s setting of Edmund Blunden’s ode For St Cecilia. James Gilchrist has never sounded finer on disc, colouring phrases with mercurial changes of tone and accent and weighting Wordsworth’s evocative text with true affection. David Hill’s command of both scores, meanwhile, elicits classy music-making from the Bournemouth SO and Chorus. Unmissable. © Classic FM

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