United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2021  – Schumann & Schubert: Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Julius Drake (piano). Old College Quad, 23.8.2021. (SRT)
Schumann – Dichterliebe
Schubert – Six songs from Schwanengesang
Two great song cycles and two great songsmiths on this morning programme at the Edinburgh International Festival. Bass-baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake have performed songs together many times, and both were on fine form today though, on balance, I think the pianist impressed me marginally more.
Finley’s skills as a dramatist and musical actor were on display as always, but at times in both these cycles he sounded uncomfortable to my ears; never especially strained but just not quite himself.
He sang Dichterliebe in a lower key than I am used to hearing – nothing wrong with that, it’s a singer’s prerogative – which suggests that his voice is moving more bass-wards. That took a bit of getting used to at the start of the cycle, and I suspect it was also the reason why he lacked a little power in the lower registers of ‘Ich grolle nicht’. There also wasn’t much juice in ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’, where Drake’s piano stole the honours for sounding limpid and lyrical.
However, he was marvellous in other parts of both of those songs. ‘Ich grolle nicht’ crested on an electrifying high climax, and Finley summoned up a gorgeous whisper for the words of the flowers in ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’. He evoked the poet’s breathless rapture in ‘Die Rose, die Lilie’ and was gorgeously tender in the climactic ‘Ich liebe dich’ of ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen she’.
Elsewhere, the honours were Drake’s with some wonderful piano playing, evoking the tolling bells of Cologne Cathedral in the sixth song, and investing the wedding music with diabolical whirring that fed into the jolly sarcasm of ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’. ‘Aus alten Märchen’ carried an ecstatic ring to it, while the final lines of the cycle, after the voice dropped out, sounded like the recollection of a distant echo.
The selection from Schwanengesang was every bit as fine. We heard the Heine songs only, which needs no apology because the collection contains no unifying narrative and was never intended to be a cycle in itself. Furthermore, Heine is the poet of Dichterliebe, which granted the concert a satisfying unity.
Beginning with the titanic rumblings of ‘Der Atlas’ was a striking way to open, immediately contrasted with the hymn-like simplicity and beautiful solemnity of ‘Ihr bild’. Drake’s hands did super work in the ominous ripples of ‘Die Stadt’, while the gothic dread of ‘Der Dopplegänger’ unfolded with slow deliberateness, underlying the growing horror of the poet’s discovery, Finley’s powerful voice combining with the slow tolling of doom in the piano.
After all of those powerful songs, rich in drama, they finished with an encore of ‘Die Taubenpost’, its whimsical charm and folksiness just about dispelling the relentless gloom of lost love that we had been living with for the previous hour.
The 2021 Edinburgh International Festival takes place until Sunday 29th August in venues across the city. For full details click here.