An Eloquent Performance of Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Elgar, Bruch and Finzi: Yossif Ivanov (violin), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill, The Lighthouse, Poole. 18.3.2015 (RB)

Edward Elgar: The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2
Max Bruch: Violin Concerto
Gerald Finzi: Intimations of Immortality for solo tenor, choir and orchestra


The last time I attended a concert conducted by David Hill its programme could hardly have been more of a contrast with this one. True it was with an orchestra – of sorts – and with a choir though smaller. Otherwise it was in a repertoire region comparatively remote from the programme in Poole. Last summer I reviewed several of the BBC Proms including a late night one which included two works by Steve Reich. His Desert Music – a feast of minimalism with an exhilarating battery of xylophones and marimbas – was conducted by David Hill. Unfortunately I had to leave before the end to catch the last train from Liverpool Street. There was no such problem this time, but at least my Prom experience goes to show the extraordinary reach of a conductor whom I had mistakenly characterised as a British choral music specialist. That said he is in the eminent Willcocks line and is the Musical Director of the Bach Choir.

 I was a bit nonplussed at first to see the band at very full strength and with the choir – all 122 of them – seated high up in three rows behind the orchestra. For a moment I actually thought that the running order had been changed with the Finzi to be played first. No such thing. I had forgotten what a mammoth orchestra is needed for the six movements of the Elgar Second Wand of Youth Suite. After all there were no fewer than six percussion players on a very crowded upper platform. As for the choir they sat through the whole of part one.

 David Hill conducts with generous hand and arm gestures – no minimalism here and no need for performers to strain to see his directions; helpful when the forces are so large and widely spanned. The Elgar Wand of Youth Suite enjoyed utterly idiomatic playing and a reading that nicely trod the line between Elgar’s lighter invention and his darker impulses. The music is modestly flecked with big stormily muscular moments which might have escaped from the symphonies. As a work it’s quite an intriguing and occasionally disorientating mix. Thus the night-march ‘toddler’ soldiery of the first movement ends with a P&C style whoop. Little Bells was all fairy bonhomie while Moths and Butterflies inhabited a feathery salon-style which carried over into silvery Fountain Dance. The final two movements contrasted the amiability of The Tame Bear with the bluff/gruff joviality of The Wild Bears. The ‘Rupert Bear’ world of the whole work was most magically communicated. It would have been so easy to suffocate this mercurial music. That danger was more than avoided.

 The Bruch was played by the young and tirelessly confident Yossif Ivanov. He may be recognised by you from his Ambroisie CDs (review review) but is, I think, less known for his concert activity. On this evidence we have been missing out. Ivanov’s way – and for that matter Hill’s – with the much exposed Bruch is one that leans on the poetic but not to the exclusion of lively engagement. Certainly his tone is neither harsh nor flashy even in the delightful moments of singing virtuosity in which this ‘warhorse’ abounds. All in all this reminded me what a heart-charming work this is and why it has made it into the same sphere as the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky. As a brief encore Ivanov gave us the sinister and spectacular Sonata No. 2 (The Furies) by Ysaye. Well done for a ‘game’ choice.

 After the intermission came the reason why I had made the 260 mile journey to the concert. Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality has been known to me since the early 1970s from a now otherwise forgotten BBC studio broadcast by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by a now forgotten name Ashley Lawrence. I played the tape to death until the Lyrita-Partridge-Handley LP came out. It became one of those cases where I learnt the poem – including those omitted stanzas – because of the music and those early recordings rather than knowing the poem beforehand. Quite a bit of my knowledge of poetry has followed that path.

 This is a poignant, philosophical and deeply poetic work which touches very movingly on a British obsession – the evanescence of life and delight in the unstoppably passing moment. The concert was my third live hearing of Intimations,  the other two being: at Colston Hall, Bristol in the 1980s with Neil Jenkins and in 2010 at Kendal Parish Church. With all this luggage expectations can be raised far too high. In fact there was no disappointment.

 David Hill clearly knew the work well and paced it perfectly. He had recorded it with a different soloist (James Gilchrist) but exactly the same choir and orchestra in 2006 (review) in much the same way that they did with Dies Natalis in 2007 (review). Then again the tenor soloist, standing to the right of the podium at the Poole concert, was no stranger to Intimations. John Mark Ainsley had recorded Intimations for Hyperion in 1996 (review).

 Intimations rises from and closes in primeval mystery – in a quiet and even tense evocation of eternity. The rounded French horns securely and delightfully limned the melody that is to thread its way throughout this forty minute piece. Not a foot was put wrong in this cruelly exposed writing. This was again to be heard in one of the work’s most beautiful passages where the horn curvets gently around the tenor and choir’s “The rainbow comes and goes / And lovely is the rose.”

 The strings were voiced with a rich velvety confidence and with eloquent roles for solo cello and solo violin. This quality was also notable in the Dies Natalis moment close to the end, just after “Forbode not any severing of our loves!” All the choral entries were preceded by the unison rise to their feet of the full choir arrayed: sopranos to the left, men at the centre and altos to the right.. This piece of theatre added a telling impact. The tenor sings solo with the orchestra but also has to ‘contend’ with the choir. At those moments he was, quite naturally, rather engulfed by the blaze of voices. It’s only in recordings where the voice cuts through such gloriously enriched textures. John Mark Ainsley was fully engaged with the meaning of the words he sang and one could feel this from the way he acted them. There was nothing antiseptic about his role.

 There is a Waltonian element to the orchestral writing as there is in a contemporaneous British work, Peter Racine Fricker’s A Vision of Judgement – even more neglected. The joyous abandon in the Finzi is picked up through drawing on the rumba, on Belshazzar and on the Coronation Marches. All that said, ultimately while this work is not short on excitement and kinetic delight its homeland is one that basks in a warm philosophical glow. This was heard time after time but notably in the valedictory words: “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” This was a resplendent performance of a refulgent work. I would have happily have sat through the whole thing again.

 Hill is familiar with Finzi having recorded In Terra Pax with the Bournemouth Orchestra and the Waynflete Singers as long ago as 1995 (review). His other Finzi including the Ode to Saint Cecilia has been heard recently in studio recordings relayed on BBC Radio Three’s Through the Night. Other British music recordings include Howells’ Stabat Mater and Delius’s A Mass of Life, both on Naxos. We can hope for more.

 The concert carried the themed title Immortal Youth. I can see how that works for the Elgar and Finzi but less so with the Bruch although its irrepressible lyrical flow certainly fits. All the BSO concerts are blessed with a title although I really doubt that it is necessary or adds much.

 The hall was very full with only a few empty seats. It seems that the Finzi might have been no-go for at least one person; the gentleman sitting to our left departed at the end of Part I not to return.

 More major Finzi to come later this year when Raphael Wallfisch plays the Cello Concerto at the inaugural concert of the English Music Festival at Dorchester on Thames on 22 May 2015.

 Meantime I hope to report further on BSO concerts in the next season.

 I trust that we will be seeing and hearing more of David Hill as conductor. His having deputised for Donald Runnicles with excellent results at a recent LSO concert gives some impression of his wide range and deep reach.

Rob Barnett

Leave a Comment