United Kingdom Schubert, Mahler: Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 15.1.2013 (RB)
Schubert: Selection of Lieder
Mahler: Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Gerald Finley is become increasingly renowned for his interpretations of Mozart operatic roles and for creating lead roles in modern operas such as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Harry Heegan in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. He is also a consummate lieder singer and has recently released a disc of the two sets of Schumann Liederkreis (review). He was joined by his regular collaborator, Julius Drake, for this recital.
Finley and Drake selected a collection of well- and lesser-known Schubert lieder for this concert, spanning the whole of the composer’s creative output. They opened with Der Strom (The River) which uses the river as a metaphor for the life of the poet. Finley’s tone was warm and rich, although the diction could have been clearer at times, while Drake did an excellent job depicting the restless movement of the river. Der blinde Knabe (The Blind Boy) is a highly lyrical song, which uses staccato quavers in the pianist’s left hand to depict the tapping of the blind boy’s cane. Finley showed acute sensitivity to Schubert’s wonderful harmonic shifts and gave us some highly cultivated and refined lyrical singing. Im Frühling (In Spring) is an extraordinary depiction of self delusion as the poet sings of happiness in love, seemingly unaware that it is not reciprocated. I was struck by the way Finley subtly conveyed the sense of unease underlying the ostensible lyricism of the piece and by his vivid change of tone colour in the penultimate stanza.
Grenzen der Menschheit (Limitations of Mankind) was the first of three songs in the recital using Goethe settings. Drake did a wonderful job in conveying the sense of grandeur of the piece in the opening chords while Finley gave the poem dramatic power and intensity. The dialogue between pianist and singer was exceptionally fine throughout. An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Chronos) was the second of the Goethe songs and it personifies the passing of time in a striking way. The mood shifts in this song were thrillingly realised and the insistent rhythmic drive well controlled. Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) is a dramatic ballad which depicts a queen and her dwarf at sea (the dwarf is depicting strangling the queen in a fit of sexual jealousy). Finley did a superb job in bringing the dialogue to life and in depicting mood and atmosphere.
Finley and Drake gave us two relatively late and lesser-known Schubert songs, Der Kreuzzug (The Crusade) and Der Einsame (The Recluse). The former has a devotional tone and reminded me of Das Wirtshaus from Winterreise. Finley brought a lyrical intensity to this song and loaded every bar and phrase with meaning. Drake conjured the sound of crickets in Der Einsame while Finley showed a deft lightness of touch. The first half concluded with the inimitable Erlkönig, the last of the evening’s Goethe songs. Drake handled the strenuous right hand octaves with ease while Finley gave a master class in how to create a musical drama with brilliant characterisations of the father, son and Erlking. The depiction of the Erlking was particularly good with Finley striking just the right balance between the sinister and seductive elements of the character.
In the second half Finley and Drake gave us a selection of songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the volume of folk verses collected by Arnim and Brentano. Serious military songs and poems about loss in love were interspersed with light- hearted, humorous numbers. The proceedings got off to a slightly rocky start with Finley asking Drake to start Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Night Song) again. This was a good judgement call as the tricky rhythmic transitions between the martial and pastoral elements of the song were handled much more effectively as the pair got into their stride. Finley did an excellent job in sustaining the narrative thread of Nicht weidersehen! (Never to Meet Again) and invested the song with burning passion and anguish. In Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes), Mahler pokes fun at the Church and the absurdity of priestly sermons. Finley and Drake captured perfectly the satirical nature of the song with Finley giving us some deadpan humour.
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Splendid Trumpets Sound) is a heart- rending song, depicting a dialogue between a dead soldier and his grieving sweetheart. Finley deployed a gorgeous full tone to underline the sense of rapture and loss and used flexible phrasing and rubato to wring every ounce of emotion from the scene. Finley and Drake conjured up some wonderful onomatopoeia (of the cuckoo and nightingale respectively) in Ablösung in Sommer (The Changing of the Summer Guard). The concert concluded with the witty Lob des hohen Verstandes (In praise of High Intellect) which showed Finley maximising the comic impact of the song with his donkey impersonations.
There were two encores: Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen, a further song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn,and Schubert’s immortal An Sylvia.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard for the next week by clicking here.