FINZI: Intimations of Immortality. Dies Natalis

FINZI:  Intimations of Immortality.  Dies Natalis.  Matthew Best conducting the Corydon Singers and Orchestra; John Mark Ainsley, tenor.  HYPERION CDA66876 [DDD]; 66:55.  Produced by Joanna Gamble, Nick Flower, and Mark Brown.

When the exceedingly euphonious music of English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) first became available on recordings in the United States during the mid 1970s, it created quite a stir.  The bittersweet poignancy of several short instrumental works, such as the Eclogue for piano and strings and the Romance for string orchestra won the hearts of many listeners already enamored of“Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Barber Adagio, and other such high-toned elegies.  However, Finzi’s music seems not to have caught on deeply enough to achieve a lasting foothold in the repertoire, and appears to have fallen from view during the past ten years or so.  Perhaps the central importance of vocal music in Finzi’s output requires too acute a sensitivity to literary values to sustain a wide audience.  This new CD provides an opportunity for a fresh crop of listeners to discover Finzi’s music through fine performances of what might reasonably be regarded as his two most significant works.  Or perhaps, to put it more accurately, they are the two largest works that embody the existential themes that seem most central to Finzi’s creative personality.  (This qualification is necessary partly because, as the composer of a large number of song settings, he produced many miniatures that are masterpieces in their own ways.)

A rather unhappy childhood filled with death, loneliness, and isolation provided Finzi with little but the world of literature as a source of companionship and comfort.  He read voraciously, cultivating an acute sensitivity to poetry, which he loved to set to music, he said,  in order to “identify [myself] with it and to share it.”

His medium of musical expression was unmistakably English, rooted in the elegiac nobility of Elgar, as exemplified by, say, the opening theme of the latter’s Symphony No. 1.  Remaining very close to this tone and mood throughout his output, he produced a substantial number of works, in which vocal music predominates.  While narrow in expressive range, these works reveal a depth and sincerity of feeling,  impeccable taste and emotional refinement, and exquisite workmanship.  It is indeed remarkable that during the first half of this century, music whose harmonic language is almost completely diatonic, rarely challenging tonality even as much as Elgar did, can create such a strongly distinctive compositional identity.

Finzi worked on Dies Natalis — settings of verses by the obscure 17th-century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne — from the mid 1920s until 1939.  A lovely orchestral introduction is followed by four settings.  Traherne’s poems capture the innocent wonder of a child’s view of the world, a theme that haunted Finzi, as it has many an artist.  Much of Samuel Barber’s music, for example — especially his vocal music– might be said to reflect this same notion, which draws its heartbreaking poignancy from the disillusionment implicit in its rapture.  Barber’s range of expression is far broader than Finzi’s, but the two figures share strikingly similar sensibilities.  There have been several excellent previous recordings of Dies Natalis, but tenor John Mark Ainsley’s rendition is as fine as the best of them.

Finzi (who allowed his music to gestate quite slowly) began his setting of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality during the 1930s, but did not complete it until 1950.  The early 19th-century text expands the ideas expressed by Traherne, focusing on the gradual erosion of innocence by the cares of adulthood and on the possibility of retaining a sense of youth and freshness by remaining open and alive to the wonders of Nature.  Scored for tenor solo, chorus, and orchestra, and lasting some three-quarters of an hour, it is probably the composer’s largest-scale work, and therefore required a broader and more ambitious expressive palette than that heard in most of his music.  Finzi met this challenge, producing a work of profound beauty that is sure to appeal to all those with a taste for English choral music along the spectrum from the religious oratorios of Elgar to Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.  The performance offered here is excellent, comparable to the version on EMI conducted by Richard Hickox.

This recent release is indispensable to the Finzi aficionado, and highly recommended to all who enjoy the early 20th-century English school of composers.