Masters of Their Art: Gerald Finley and Julius Drake

United StatesUnited States Various: Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Alice Tully Hall, New York, 2.5.2018. (RP)

Gerald Finley © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Beethoven – ‘Neue Liebe, neues Leben’ Op.75 No.2; ‘Wonne der Wehmut’ Op.83 No.1; ‘Mit einem gemalten Band’ Op.83 No.3; ‘Aus Goethes Faust’ Op.75 No.3
Schubert – ‘Prometheus’ D.674; ‘Geistes-Gruss’ D.142; ‘An den Mond’ D.259; ‘Rastlose Liebe’ D.138; ‘An Schwager Kronos’ D.369; ‘Schäfers Klagelied’ D.121; ‘Wanderers Nachtlied II’ D.768; ‘Erlkönig’ D.328
Tchaikovsky – ‘Don Juan’s Serenade’ Op.38 No.1; ‘At the ball’ Op.38 No.3; ‘None but the lonely heart’ Op.6 No.6; ‘Over burning ashes’ Op.25 No.2
Rachmaninoff – ‘O stay, my love’ Op.4 No.1; ‘In the silence of the secret night’ Op.4 No.3; ‘Fate’ Op.21 No.1; ‘On the death of the linnet’ Op.21 No.8; ‘Christ is Risen’ Op.26, No.6; ‘Spring waters’ Op.14 No.11
Copland – ‘Ching a Ring’ from Old American Songs, Set 2
Respighi – ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ P.143 No.3
Britten – ‘The Crocodile’

There were bravos before Gerald Finley and Julius Drake even made it to center stage at Alice Tully Hall, let alone performed a song. Some two hours later, the waves of applause and a standing ovation had elicited three encores. In between, there were masterpieces of the German and Russian song repertoire followed by folksong settings in English, sort of an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing ending that was charming and fun. Fitting, for in spite of their impeccable musicianship and artistry, Finley and Drake are entertainers.

It was roughly the same program that the pair first performed in early April on the other side of the Atlantic in Tunbridge Wells before embarking on their North American tour, which ends in Montreal on 6 May. Bernard Jacobson gave the pair a thumbs-up a fortnight ago when he heard them in Philadelphia. (See review)  I can only concur: they are masters of their art.

There were two slip-ups, an inexcusable one from the audience and the other by the singer. At the very end of Schubert’s ‘Wanderers Nachtlied II’ when tranquility reigned, for the second time in a matter of minutes a phone rang out loud and clear. Nonplussed, Finley sang to the end, turned to Drake, mouthed a word or two, and they repeated the final two lines. I am not sure if Drake even lifted his foot from the pedal, as neither the sound nor the mood changed one bit. Afterwards, a voice behind me whispered, ‘Thank you!’

Later, in Rachmaninoff’s ‘Spring waters’, Finley missed the climactic high note. (The best ever was soprano June Anderson years ago at Carnegie Hall, who simply burst out laughing in amazement. Conductor, orchestra and soprano just started the Bellini aria afresh.) Finley kept going, and it barely registered with the audience. However, one sensed his disappointment, and Drake patted him on the back as they left the stage.

Their reading of Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ was high drama. Finley gave each of the three characters a distinctive voice and physical presence, uttering the harrowing final words of the song in a ghostly whisper. Exaltation and defiance marked another of Schubert’s great ballads, ‘Prometheus’. Finley’s superb declaration of the text was matched by Drake’s stirring accompaniment. After each rolling chord, he lifted his right arm in triumph.

The recital opened with four songs by Beethoven to texts by Goethe, as were the eight Schubert songs that followed. The first three, all of love, were light, fresh and buoyant. Even the middle one, ‘Wonne der Wehmut’, which tells of the tears shed over an unhappy love, was devoid of pathos. I am not sure if I have ever been before so charmed by Beethoven. In the final one, the ‘Song of the Flea’ from Faust, Drake’s playing was a witty accompaniment to Finley’s graphic description of the Lords and Ladies being nibbled to bits by the annoying pest.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Don Juan’s Serenade’ opened the second half and found Finley in glorious voice. ‘At the ball’ was characterized by a bittersweet restraint, a quiet acknowledgement of love at first sight. Drake jumped to his feet as the final notes of the of the postlude of ‘Over burning ashes’ were still resounding in the hall, an exclamation point to Finley’s blazing rendition of this smoldering, passionate song.

Finley dedicated the Rachmaninoff songs to the late Dmitri Horostovsky, yet another tribute to the much-loved and deeply mourned singer. Finley told the audience that early in his career he had sung Tchaikovsky both in recital and the opera house; however, he felt no connection with Rachmaninoff’s music. A recording of the latter’s songs by the great Russian baritone unlocked both the music’s secrets as well as how to present it to an audience.

Finley brought beautiful, melting, endless phrases full of profound emotion to these songs. He sang softly without ever losing the depth and color of his voice, which a second later would ring out gloriously at full volume. With its incessant knocking at the door, ‘Fate’ was both tragic and funny, while ‘On the death of a linnet’ was absolute perfection, instilled with a sad tenderness that was simple, direct and heartfelt.

Six folksongs by British and American composers followed. There was humor and gaiety, but also Finley’s beautiful voice in which to luxuriate, especially in Barber’s ‘There’s Nae Lark’ and Haydn Wood’s ‘Roses of Picardy’. The latter was sung with exceptional warmth for, as Drake explained, the singer has a two-year-old Rose waiting for him at home.

Rick Perdian

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