‘Greatness-Squared’ from Finley and Drake

24/04/2018

Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Various: Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.4.2018. (BJ)

Beethoven – ‘Neue Liebe, neues Leben’; ‘Wonne der Wehmut’; ‘Mit einem gemalten Band’; ‘Aus Goethes Faust’

Schubert – ‘Prometheus’; ‘Geistes-Gruss’; ‘An den Mond’; ‘Rastlose Liebe’; ‘An Schwager Kronos’; ‘Schäfers Klagelied’; ‘Wanderers Nachtlied’ II; ‘Erlkönig’

Tchaikovsky – ‘Don Juan’s Serenade’; ‘At the Ball’; ‘None but the Lonely Heart’; ‘Over Darkly Glowing Embers’

Rachmaninoff – ‘O, no, I Beg you, Do Not Leave’; ‘Silent Night’; ‘Fate’; ‘Death of the Linnet’; ‘Christ is Risen’; ‘Spring Flood’

Folk songs – ‘Ching a Ring’ (arr. Copland); ‘There’s nae a lark’ (arr. Barber); ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ (arr. Respighi); ‘The Crocodile’ (arr. Britten)

If this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital had merely presented us with an outpouring from a gorgeous bass-baritone voice, the evening would have been delight enough. The same would have been the case even if the artistic impetus had come exclusively from a superb partner at the keyboard. Not only, however, is Gerald Finley a great singer, and not only is Julius Drake a great pianist, but the two of them constitute a partnership whose rare vitality, subtlety, technical audacity, and profound musical understanding all blend in a combination that might not inappropriately be described as greatness-squared.

From the beginning, in four Goethe settings by Beethoven and the eight by Schubert that followed, I was astonished by the apparent (but doubtless meticulously prepared) spontaneity with which singer and pianist tossed ideas at each other, each profiting from what he had been offered and taking it in a new and often surprising direction of his own.

There are singers labeled baritone, and singers labeled bass. Finley seems to me to be the epitome of the category bass-baritone, for in his voice the firmest and most resonant of low tones coexist with a ravishingly shining top range; and though I am no judge of Russian pronunciation, the Beethoven and Schubert half of the program demonstrated also the singer’s masterful diction in German texts. Governing everything the partners did was an expressive and dynamic range encompassing the utmost quietude and fortissimos of equally extraordinary force, with Finley summoning up seemingly inexhaustible power and Drake alternating between pianissimos that verged on inaudibility without crossing that line, and explosions of fortissimo that took this listener’s — if fortunately not the singer’s — breath away.

‘Erlkönig,’ ending the first half of the program, aptly explored the evening’s farthest reaches of drama and of dynamic resource, Finley choosing to round off one of the song’s lyrical passages with a sudden fortissimo note that pitchforked us without warning into the next stretch of heightened drama. His realization of Schubert’s almost operatic differentiation among the three characters in the story was vivid enough to challenge comparison with Ian Bostridge’s positively terrifying way with the song.

Returning to the stage after intermission, Finley urbanely observed ‘and now for something completely different.’ The Monty Pythonesque tagline was certainly justified by the Russian songs’ shift of method from the verbal emphases of Schubert to the more smoothly continuous textural effects of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. But once again Finley and Drake made the most of the variety of mood in both composers’ music, from occasional touches of humor to the saturnine intensity of Tchaikovsky’s most famous song, ‘None but the Lonely Heart.’

The remaining four songs listed in the heading to this review were described in the program as ‘favorite folksongs—to be announced from the stage.’ In reality, they turned out to be not folksongs in the pure sense of the word, but thoroughly art-song-like arrangements by four eminent composers. Turning to an indeed ‘completely different’ sphere of musical expression, Finley displayed a sovereign lightness of vocal touch in Copland’s version of ‘Ching a Ring’, and cleverly exploited the brusque humor of Britten’s ‘The Crocodile.’ In more serious vein, ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ brought forward one of the last names one might have expected to encounter in the context of folksong; but Respighi was a composer of remarkable stylistic and expressive range, who I feel has been underestimated for far too long, and his was a charming and accomplished treatment of the well-known tune, realized on this occasion with restrained and touching delicacy.

After this segment of the program, which amounted to a sequence of semi-encores, the real encore followed, Britten returning with ‘Bird-Scarer’s Song’, whose abrupt ending confirmed Finley’s and Drake’s shared gift for comedy. It served as a suitably light-hearted go-home instruction to the highly satisfied audience.

Bernard Jacobson

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