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Sinfini Music, August 2014

Something special happens when James Gilchrist’s vocal clarity meets the urgent strings of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in this addictive recording of Finzi’s nostalgic songs—utterly gorgeous. © 2014 Sinfini Music

R Moore
American Record Guide, September 2008

Naxos completes a major survey of Finzi’s vocal music with this excellent release…Finzi’s exceptional ability to set words to music is demonstrated well in these works, written in a musical language that could easily be mistaken for Elgar or Vaughan Williams. Dies Natalis is Finzi at his best.

…Gilchrist sings with passion and finesse, though his vibrato sometimes gets stuttery and fluttery, especially at softer volume, and his voice is somewhat forced at louder volume. In his middle range he produces a sublime sweetness that conveys the music exquisitely. His readings show admirable grasp of the texts, with clearly enunciated and carefully accented phrasing.

…Still, the sweet-voiced Gilchrist captures the innocence of childlike wonder exceptionally well, and Naxos gives us a full disc of Finzi with fine orchestral playing and fuller string sound than the competition in Dies Natalis. For the price, it’s hard to go wrong. Notes are supplied; texts are available on the Naxos website.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, July 2008

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…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 Berrymovement 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. 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.

Andrew Stewart
Classic FM, June 2008

Life’s corrupting compromises, disappointments and shocks inform Finzi’s cantata Dies natalis, a celebrated product of the interwar years that holds its relevance at a time when childhood innocence is so cheaply sold. Yet again in this unbeatable Naxos series, the English tenor James Gilchrist brings musical authority and emotional maturity to bear on music that can easily sound trite or even folksy faux-naïve. His impassioned eloquence is matched by David Hill’s big-boned yet flexible conducting and really fine playing from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Finzi newcomers should start by sampling the first of the Two Sonnets for tenor and orchestra and prepare to be hooked by this truly outstanding album. Farewell to Arms is a welcome extra.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, June 2008

Once again Naxos look to Finzi with this new release. These works are written essentially in the composer’s characteristic pastoral idiom…

The prevailing pastoral quality of Dies natalis is asserted through pages of seductively feather-like, flowing tones meshed with strains of reflective yearning. Tenor James Gilchrist is a generally assured soloist. His diction is impressive as is his ability to convincingly display a range of emotions. I love the way his voice can easily soar up to the heavens. However, when under pressure as in The Rapture movement his tone rather loses its attractiveness and his vibrato becomes more conspicuous…

David Hill and the Bournemouth strings convey soothing tenderness and beauty in their playing of the Prelude; Fall of the Leaf and Nocturne.

Throughout all three scores one is aware of an underlying sense of grief and yearning. It is as if Finzi, who had experienced the deaths of several family members, intended the scores to serve as musical tributes to close friends who had died.

Composed in 1928 the Two Sonnets for tenor and small orchestra are settings of texts by the eminent seventeenth century poet John Milton.

The first sonnet When I consider develops to a powerful climax and is impressive for Gilchrist’s strongly felt contribution of tender and nostalgic longing. Also impressive is the tenor’s enthusiastic and moving performance of the second sonnet How soon hath Time…

Recorded at the Lighthouse Concert Hall in Poole the Naxos engineers have provided admirable sonics. The accompanying booklet contains an informative essay by Andrew Burn.

Pleasingly performed and well recorded this Naxos release makes a worthwhile addition to Finzi’s discography.

Michael Southern
Australian Hi-Fi, May 2008

This will rank as one of the finest recordings of this work [Dies natalis] and the accompanying Farewell to Arms and the Two Sonnets of John Milton. Gilchrist has a ringing tone in his voice which is apt for these works while David [Hill] is a fine interpreter and conductor. In spite of the large forces Hill produces an intimate performance. A glowing sound makes this a worthy successor to their earlier collaboration intimations of Immortality. A must for any collector.

Boosey & Hawkes, April 2008

A superb follow-up to the critically-acclaimed collaboration between James Gilchrist and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Hill on the Naxos CD “Intimations of Immortality/For St Cecilia”, “Dies Natalis/Farewell to Arms/Two Sonnets” depicts Gerald Finzi in elegiac mode.

Quintessentially Finzi, the tender yet radiant Dies natalis, a setting of texts by the 17th-century poet Thomas Traherne, depicts both the first sensations of a child as it enters the world, and life’s tarnishing experience of the innocence of childhood.

In Farewell to Arms, a further example of Finzi’s enthusiasm for 17th-century poets, the steady but inevitable tramp of time, symbolized by the measured bass and the tenor’s sad, arching melody, becomes a poignant symbol for the brevity of life as expressed in lines such as ‘O time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing’. Finzi knew all too well that ‘Beauty, strength, youth are flowers but fading seen’.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

For too long the music of Gerald Finzi has been kept in England’s artistic backwater as the easier commercial attractions of Vaughan Williams and Elgar have been internationally exploited. He was a very private person, not helped by the fact that he studied composition privately and was never part of the competitive life of a music college. That tendency to introversion was broadened by the death of his mentor and so many friends in the First World War. He was to spend much of his life in the seclusion and peace of the countryside, never craving for the popularity coveted by other composers of his generation. In these surroundings he had many ideas but few that came to fruition, and those that did often took many years. The orchestral song cycle, Dies Natalis, was such a work, having been conceived in the 1920’s but remained unfinished until 1939. He was reluctant to use texts from fashionable sources, the words for the cycle coming from the 17th century writer Thomas Traherne. The result was a score of intense beauty that is a masterpiece of the English vocal repertoire, the use of a high voice and strings creating music that floats on air. Two of his unfinished works share the disc, the Prelude for Strings having started life as a projected first section of a triptych based on the seasons. The final movement became The Fall of the Leaf, but that largely remained in piano duet form on his death, the task of completing the orchestration falling to his friend, Howard Ferguson. When he did use a known poet, John Milton, for the Two Sonnets for Tenor and Orchestra, he was then taken to task for using words that could not be set to music. The short orchestral work, Nocturne (New Year Music), and a further score for tenor and orchestra, Farewell to Arms, complete the release. I don’t suppose we will ever have a more deeply felt recorded performance of Dies Natalis, the music and the tenor voice of James Gilchrist being as one. This is sublime music making, the Bournemouth Symphony strings playing with that innate Englishness Finzi requires. David Hill is the admirable conductor, and the disc is completed by a sound quality of great beauty.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, April 2008

The lynchpin here is Dies Natalis. It’s the work by which many discovered Finzi in the 1960s and 1970s courtesy of Wilfred Brown’s perfect recording. There the orchestra was the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer’s son Christopher Finzi. You can hear it on EMI Classics (CDM7 63372 and CDM 565588 2) keeping company with Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi.

Dies Natalis is quintessential Finzi, marrying limpid serenity of musical expression with an ecstatic-philosophical text. The theme of the poems spoke directly to Finzi: childhood as a transcendent religious experience. We can trace Wilfred Brown’s stylistic lineage back, by repute, to Eric Greene (are there any recordings?) and forwards to Ian Partridge who never recorded Dies Natalis and onwards now to James Gilchrist. Their ‘DNA’ is identifiable by intelligent and emotional engagement with the words, sharply delineated syllabic enunciation even at volume, wondrous breath control and steady tonal production. Not everyone likes these qualities; some may find the results too white and mannered. If you prefer other approaches there is no shortage of alternatives. For myself the Brown-Partridge school represents the ideal in Finzi. This disc rates very highly indeed although Gilchrist and Hill have not shaken my recommendation of Partridge and Handley (Lyrita) in the Two Sonnets and Farewell to Arms. This gently breathed Dies Natalis lovingly catches the Tallis hush and wonder of the piece. Taking one example: listen to “the corn was orient and immortal wheat” with gentle breath of the fragile violins as backdrop and played close to silence. The buoyancy and bounce of the playing is spot-on in the more exuberant passages and elsewhere the soloistic violin writing provides a silvery tracery.

Similarly compelling although more modest are the purely orchestral pieces from the warm murmur of the Nocturne to the caressingly shaped Prelude and the autumnal shiver of The Fall of the Leaf (what a title!).

I have a great affection for the two tenor and orchestra diptychs. Finding a home for them in concerts is a challenge but they subsist happily and bestow their blessings on record. Gilchrist is extremely good here but does not supplant Partridge who is softer-toned than Gilchrist when singing at pressurised volume. His identification with the words is never in doubt—listen to the way he tremulously shapes the words ‘I fondly ask’ in When I consider (the first Sonnet) but also how he rises to operatic climax at the end of How soon hath time. Also strongly and subtly done are the songs in Farewell to Arms. The words ‘rustic spade’ are fondly sung and a smile of recognition will come when Gilchrist sings ‘the ventriloquous drum’—surely a Stanford souvenir. The unison string writing in Aria looks back with affection at Dies Natalis. The piercing ecstasy of transience returns to Finzi campground in the words “Oh time too swift / Oh swiftness never ceasing” with which the piece ends.

As for the liner notes we are in the safe and lucid hands of Andrew Burn. The sung words are not in the booklet but are available at a page on the Naxos website.

There is no direct competition for this particular combination of works on CD. You might consider mixing and matching various Lyritas but note that Lyrita never recorded Dies Natalis.

What do I see in the far distance—is that a Finzi boxed set from Naxos?

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