Finzi - James Gilchrist - International Record Review

Last month I reviewed a Naxos disc of baritone songs by Gerald Finzi, sung by Roderick Williams. In this present recital of settings for tenor, Thomas Hardy's poems are again to the fore. Till Earth Outwears, its title sonf being a line in the final stanza of the second song, and A Young Man's Exhortation are devoted to Hardy's verses. Only Oh Fair to See includes the work of other poets, though the first song is a Hardy poem.

This last cycle (not strictly correct, as its seven settings were gathered together and published posthumously) covers 35 years of song-writing by Finzi and ends with 'Since we loved', which was the composer's final completed work. Among these songs are two Edmund Blunden poems. There is nothing Beethovenian about the title og 'To Joy': quite the opposite in fact, for Joy was Blunden's daughter, who died at five weeks old. Finzi's music is fittingly sad. The cycle benefits from the sensitivity of James Gilchrist's interpretations and his use of head-voice.

Till Earth Outwears is another posthumous assemblage. It was first performed by that fine tenor Wilfred Brown and composer / pianist Howard Ferguson in February 1958. From it, Brown recorded only 'At a Lunar Eclipse', a slow, elegant song somewhat resembling a pavane.

A Young Man's Exhortation was first given in its entirety in December 1933, by Frank Drew and Augustus Lowe, both unknown to me. The second song, 'Ditty', makes a delightfully irregular progress, with each of its five stanzas ending with 'Where she dwells'. It is followed by 'Budmouth Dears', in which Hardy's surprising levity elicits from Finzi a splendidly spirited tune. How different it is from 'The Comet at Yell'ham', which draws from Gilchrist an effective and reflective response.

The recording is extremely clear, more so than that given by Hyperion to Martyn Hill. Anna Tilbrook's accompaniments match Gilchrist's approach, sensing the mood of each song as convincingly as he does, but it is the tenor's vocal quality which nullifies my enjoyment to some extent. It is not the actual sound, despite an occasional Bostridge-like yowl, but the unsteadiness which is apparent when he applies pressure or holds a note at more than a low volume: loud upper notes rattle. Both Brown and Hill are much smoother and more focused in tonal emission, yet Gilchrist's quiet singing, as in 'The Comet at Yell'ham', is attractive, and he sings with much intelligence. In broadcasts he has sometimes adopted the precious over-articulation that I hate, but here his enunciation is natural and clear. I regret the vocal unsteadiness, but there remains much by way of compensation.

Brown's LP craves a CD release, but who now owns the Jupiter recordings? The Hyperion set contains five Hardy cycles by Finzi, Stephen Varcoe perceptively taking those for baritone.

01 July 2005