Sunday, 15 December 2013

Gerald Finzi Dies Natalis Wilfred Brown

Now available on BBC Radio 3, Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis op 8 (1939) in the historic first recording. Finzi's masterpiece was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in January 1940. The Finzis and their sons used precious petrol rations to drive up to London from Ashmansworth  for the occasion.  No M4 motorway then, and no lights because of the Blitz.  Think about that earlier England, quieter but tense, a winter under the shadow of war. That first performance featured a soprano, Elsie Suddaby, but soon became associated with the tenor voice, since Wilfred Brown, the Finzi sons' schoolmaster, sang it from 1952, conducted by Finzi himself. The recording the BBC is playing is the  first recording, made in 1963, where Wilfred Brown is conducted by Christopher Finzi, the younger son, then aged 29 and recently married to Hilary Du Pré. The recording is of historic importance because all those involved were so closely connected with the composer himself, who had died 8 years previously. It's not quite so definitive as a performance. Ian Bostridge's recording, made with Sir Neville Marriner and the Orchestra of St Martin in the Fields in 1997 is technically and interpretively far superior.  The Brown/Finzi recording, however, has a nice family-feel innocence and period charm which works well with the piece. Traherne's poetry, nonetheless, is quite cosmically surreal and benefits from Bostridge and Marriner's more complex approach.
Dies Natalis begins with an Intrada where themes to come emerge briefly. It suggests, to me, the swirling gases of the cosmos, before the Universe was formed. Dies Natalis deals with no less than the miracle of Life and Creation, so this interpretation is valid, since it suggests primordial growth and vast cosmic forces. I was a little surprised that the themes weren't as clearly defined as they could be, but that hardly matters, since the concept is so overwhelming. This sense of infinite space and time is important because the poet, Thomas Traherne, though Christian, was a mystic. Transcendentalism "transcends" traditional dogma. "Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness?" the poet asks. Traherne's Rhapsody is prose, but with strange syntax, which Finzi respects by setting it with unusual rhythms "I was a stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys: my knowledge was Divine!", the word "divine" jumping forth from the score, as if illuminated by unearthly glow.

Although there are references to Adam and to God, Traherne's surreal imagery bears little resemblence to conventional religious text. "The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never shall be reap'd nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting". Finzi's dynamic extremes emphasize the psychic extreme of the poet's imagination. They aren't there to display vocal gymnastics. In a  Wigmore Hall performance last year, Ailish Tynan's notes were pitched to extremes, at the expense of diction. We should be hearing meaning, not voice as such, but meaning in Dies Natalis is not easy to grasp. Calm stillness underpins the ecstasy, for the cycle repeatedly refers to sublimation over ego and the sense of self. "I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, immortal and divine".

From Rhapsody to Rapture. This cycle often works best when sung by a tenor, emphasizing the strange, unconventional spirituality. "Sweet Infancy!" does not refer to babies, but to the idea of birth. Perhaps for Finzi with his beliefs in organic farming and living in harmony with nature, it's a statement of faith in something more primeval, the very force of life itself. Finzi was way ahead of his time.

"When silent I, so many thousand, thousand Years beneath the Dust did in a Chaos lie, How could I Smiles, or Tears, or Lips or Hands or Eyes perceive " (Traherne's upper case). Most definitely this isn't a human baby, nor even baby Jesus. Long before science developed theories about the Big Bang and primordial soup Traherne intuited the idea of the birth of the cosmos. Dies Natalis explores new territory, completely alien to the certainities of the established Church. Indeed, the very idea of faith is challenged. Fundamental to this cycle is the sense of wonder, of seeing the world anew through absolutely pure, unbiased eyes. Even Jesus had a mission when he became Man. Finzi creates a Being without any consciouness other than the sheer miracle of existence. "A Stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange Glory see......Strange all and new to me, but that they MINE should be ...who Nothing was, That strangest is, of all, yet brought to pass". 

Lots more about Gerald Finzi on this site, please explore.

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