United Kingdom Schubert, Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 15.1.2014 (RB)
Schubert – Winterreise D911 (1827)
Schubert described Winterreise as “a cycle of spine-chilling (schauerliche) songs”. When he wrote the cycle he was dying of syphilis, aged only 31, and it is impossible to listen to the cycle without thinking about how the disease was taking its toll on the composer’s physical and mental health. The journey of the title is not a physical one – there are no picturesque streams, meadows and brooks as in Die Schöne Müllerin – but rather a spiritual and philosophical journey to try to find meaning. There is no God in Winterreise and the cycle moves from nihilistic howls of anguish to manic hallucinations and images of isolation, marginalisation and extreme destitution. We can hear the composer’s distress as he reflects with piercing acuity on the hand life has dealt him. It is one of the most profound works in the whole of Western music and, like the greatest works of art, has a universality in what it has to say about the human condition.
There are some sublime performances of the song cycle so the bar was set very high for Finley and Drake. They have just issued a new recording of the cycle which will be released by Hyperion in March so the concert was the first of a series to showcase the new disc. They decided to have two mini-intervals during the recital immediately after Rückblick and Letze Hoffnung: this approach allowed the performers to re-harness their resources but it also detracted slightly from the overarching build-up in intensity needed for this piece. Finley has a wonderfully rich and dark timbre to his voice so in some respect Winterreise is an ideal vehicle for his talents. His diction was very clear but there was some over-enunciation of the consonants, particularly at the beginning, which made him sound a little self-conscious. In general I thought the performance was very good but the later selection of songs was more successful than the first set, perhaps as a result of Finley’s voice warming up.
Gute Nacht was excellent with Drake conjuring up the wanderer’s footsteps with a ripe evenness of tone, and Finley giving us a magical modulation and change of tone colour in the final stanza. Some of the piano figurations were a little clumsy in Die Wetterfahne and I’m not sure they completely conveyed the whistling of the winds around the weather-vane. Finley gave us some wonderful deep sonorities in Gefrorne Tränen and the dialogue between the two performers was commendable in the final verse. Drake eschewed the use of pedal in Erstarrung and the piano textures were admirably clear but the song did not quite have the searing quality that one hears in the very greatest performances. Finley revealed his gifts as a consummate storyteller in Der Lindenbaum and there was a gorgeous tonal sheen in the opening stanzas and feeling of repose at the end but the wind storm did not quite have the ferocity I was looking for. Auf dem Flusse was perhaps the most successful song in the first part of the recital with Finley giving us gorgeous shifts in tone colour and dynamics.
The second section opened with Irrlicht where the two performers highlighted the ways in which the music enhanced Müller’s poetry (e.g. the capriciousness invested in ‘Alles eines Irrlichts spiel!’) but the modulations were not as extraordinary as they needed to be – listen to Schreier and Richter. The opening of Frühlingstraum had a wonderful sweetness and purity and I loved the way in which the wanderer’s illusions are shattered when he hears the screeching of cocks and ravens – the effect was almost like glass fragmenting. Drake gave us a wonderful rhythmic vibrancy in Die Post while I loved the intensely musical way in which Finley soared through the phrases. There was a sense of desperation in Der greise Kopf: Finley’s handling of the modulations was superlative and some of the phrases were very affecting. Die Krähe did not quite have the surreal quality that I was looking for and the tempo was a little slow but there was a wonderful build up in intensity and considerable dramatic power at the end. In Letze Hoffnung the composer is clearly losing his grip on reality and this came across very vividly in this performance while the final ‘Wein auf meiner Hoffnung Grab’ was heart breaking.
The best singing and playing came in the last third of the concert. I loved the way Drake brought out the waltz-like lilt of Täuschung while Finley brought a bitter sweet elegance to the vocal line. Das Wirtshaus was profoundly moving with Finley illuminating the funereal shades of the graveyard and giving us some breathtaking pianissimi. Die Nebensonnen was infused with dejection, heartbreak and melancholy while both performers conveyed the sense of numbness and emptiness in Der Leiermann – like the eponymous organ-grinder, no one cares to look at or listen to the composer and the dogs snarl at him – the result is blackness and emptiness.
The best compliment I can perhaps pay the performers is to say that tears were rolling down my face at the end of the recital. As is customary for Winterreise, there was no encore.