Schumann
Tragödie, Op.64/3 – Entflieh’ mit mir und sei mein Weib; Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht
Die beiden Grenadiere, Op.49/1
Abends am Strand, Op.45/3
Die feindlichen Brüder, Op.49/2
Der arme Peter, Op.53/3 – Der Hans und die Grete tanzen herum; In meiner Brust; Der arme Peter wankt vorbei
Belsatzar, Op.57
Myrthen – Die Lotosblume, Op.25/7; Was will die einsame Träne, Op.25/21; Du bist wie eine Blume. Op.25/24

Songs originally conceived for Dichterliebe – Lehn’ deine Wang’ an meine Wang’, Op.142/2; Es leuchtet meine Liebe, Op.127/3; Dein Angesicht so lieb und schön, Op.127/2; Mein Wagen rollet langsam, Op.142/4

Dichterliebe, Op.48
Gerald Finley (baritone) & Julius Drake (piano)

Recorded 25-27 October 2007 in All Saint’s Church, East Finchley, London
CD No: HYPERION CDA67676
Duration: 70 minutes
Reviewed: August 2008
My starting-point for this review is the question asked in the promotional material for this release: “Why another Dichterliebe recording?” The current catalogue offers a range of interpretations of varying vintages undertaken predominantly by baritones but also by some tenors, the occasional soprano and even a countertenor. There is a questionable assumption that every emerging male Lieder singer should before long give us his “Dichterliebe”, just as every budding symphonic conductor needs to record Beethoven symphonies. As a result the field is diluted with many versions of no great character. In favour of flooding it even further it can be said that such a towering masterpiece can always sustain further exploration. Any work of significance in the song literature, seen through the prism of a particular vocal personality, particularly a strong, intelligent one, yields new secrets.
In any generation few singers take supreme rank both as opera singers and concert artists. Gerald Finley is one. His career has been characterised by enterprising exploration of the repertoire and it is no surprise that he has now arrived at this work.
I turned first, then, to “Dichterliebe”. This is not an interpretation that begins with a vision of the unalloyed freshness of spring: the tempo for the opening song is slow, the ethos lethargic. The poet is looking back on a lost relationship but one whose flowering season he can still envisage. The all-consuming power of love is re-created decisively in the third song and better times recalled in the fifth. Finley’s lyric baritone is incisive without being bulky. He can deploy reserves without the tone becoming uneven. As a vehicle for communicating character and drama the voice always retains a foundation of elegance and musicianship. That is not to say that he plays down the intensity of resentment felt by the central character in ‘Ich grolle nicht’ or in the final phrases of the succeeding song “Sie hat ja selbst zerrissen, zerrissen mir das Herz”; indeed it is razor-sharp in each case.
Gerald Finley The baritone’s vocal scope is well demonstrated in ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’. He summons up dark, resonant tone to create the awesome surroundings of Cologne cathedral. Then, in a procedure reminiscent of a contemporary film director, the long shot tightens to a close-up of the Madonna, awakening memories of the beloved. The perspective becomes intimate, the tone mellifluous, and the vocal surface velvety. This much is fairly standard among interpreters but the last third of the song finds Finley at his most imaginative: the lyricism fades, the tone firms up austerely all the way to the last words. The pianist follows a similar pattern, his imitation of clanging cathedral bells forming a frame as prelude and postlude but withdrawing into the background while the singer expounds.
Performers of this cycle have to cope with several pairs of opposites. One is its mixture of sombre and garish colours. The latter is exemplified by the cacophony of amateur musicians that the pianist must imitate in ‘Es ist ein Flöten und Geigen’. Julius Drake does so graphically; interestingly the piano takes over in the end as the main expressive instrument as the singer’s voice weakens. In the following song, ‘Hör ich das Liedchen singen’, despite the overwhelming declaration of misery in the text, it is again the piano with its uneven notes in the postlude which conveys the depth of the poet’s suffering.
Then there is the co-existence of sincerity and parody. The comic imitation of folk-music in ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ is immediately followed by the direct appeal of ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’, the effect of which is made even more heart-breaking by Finley’s withdrawal to pianissimo and his hesitation before delivering the last couplet.
The last four songs have the common thread of dreams. The arid ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ is followed here by some sublime soft singing in the last stanza of ‘Allnächtlich im Traume’. This suggests one reservation. Finley does sometimes appear to try too hard to get the German words across; in this case the sibilants are too conspicuous. No qualifications about the land of forgetfulness that he conjures up in ‘Aus alten Märchen’, while the vocal part of the final song ends by returning to the fatigue foreshadowed by the opening of the cycle.
Ironically, “Dichterliebe” is placed at the end of this recorded programme, despite having the lion’s share of the promotion. Heine’s poetry is the common feature; the ‘fillers’ are other settings by Schumann of this poet, though not the obvious Opus 24 “Liederkreis”. We are not kept waiting impatiently for the main course, however, for the brightest goods are in the shop window. The opening two selections from ‘Tragödie’ are two sharply contrasted poems (the third of the sequence is missing, as it is a duet for male and female singers). In the first the beloved is invited to elope, with all misgivings swept aside in a supremely self-confident surge of machismo. Finley’s vocal skills are displayed: rhythmic verve, comfort across a wide range, contrasted colour for the central section and crisp enunciation. Then, in the setting of the second poem, a wholly unsuccessful elopement is described; here his tone acquires a mournful, drooping quality. The two performers make absolute logic of the word-setting: while the singer leaves the final words of each stanza hanging inconclusively, it is left to the pianist to complete the musical structure in a way which powerfully reinforces the desolation.
There follows ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’, not one of the ten individual songs chosen for comparative review in the late Alan Blyth’s valuable “Song on Record”, despite its popularity; he describes it as a “slightly paltry piece”. Finley and Drake give it every chance to redeem its reputation in a reading that delves deep to discover its possibilities. The opening tempo is daringly slow and Finley drags out his notes to depict the exhaustion of the retreating soldiers. Then the blow of discovering their emperor’s fate is built up gradually but relentlessly in the second pair of verses. The clash between patriotic feelings and family responsibility is theatrically conveyed, while I know no recording which makes as much of the climax as this, accompaniment seconding singer in exhilaration verging on transfiguration, with the onomatopoeic effects (“Kanonengebrüll”, “wiehernder Rosse Getrabe” and “klirren”) not neglected.
Julius Drake A number of ballads provide the opportunity for dramatic enactment by both artists. “Belsatzar” receives a gripping performance. Schumann’s setting is again cinematic, with the opening couplets representing an establishing shot of the palace, after which the camera takes us into the banqueting hall, with greater immediacy of sound, before focusing on Belshazzar. Finley enacts the role of the slobbering, blasphemous monarch with vivid verbal colour: “Ich bin der König von Babylon” he sneers. Both artists play their part in creating the changing moods of anarchic orgy, growing tension and paralysed fear.
Quite different from this straight, macabre narrative is the tripartite sequence of “Der arme Peter”. Heine has provided a sardonic account of the jilted young man’s pained observation of the beloved’s wedding, his solitary anguish and his renunciation of life. The second poem finds Finley progressing vividly through varying degrees of darkness and despair, including a visit to an uncommonly low tessitura but Schumann has wittily set the poems to conventional musical forms, ending with a funeral march, and throughout the trio of songs Finley and Drake invite us to laugh with them at the absurdity of the character’s self-dramatisation.
The straightforward love songs from “Myrthen” display Finley’s vocal refinement; words and sound balanced in the serenity of ‘Die Lotosblume’, high notes powerful but not abrasive in ‘Was will die einsame Träne’ and ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ softly sung but without ostentatious recourse to head voice.
The four settings originally intended for a 20-song “Dichterliebe” are given absolutely full value by Finley and Drake. By showing the similarities between them as reserves and the sixteen members of the first team, they indicate the extent to which they duplicate features of the latter: the laconic style and inconclusive ending of ‘Lehn’ deine Wang’ an meine Wang’, the morbid flavour of ‘Dein Angesicht’ and the importance of the piano as a carrier of meaning in ‘Es leuchtet meine Liebe’. I feel a sense of loss only about the absence from the cycle of ‘Mein Wagen rollet langsam’, a truly great song with its complex postlude, in which Drake holds the listener in tantalising suspense.
There is an understandable suspicion about each new recording of a commonly-recorded work: might the performers have succumbed to the temptation to deliver a distinctive interpretation and establish a unique selling point? Might they have been propelled in the direction of exaggeration, perhaps in extremes of dynamic, of tempo or of emphasis? The engineers too may have used their own resources to make the recording stand out in a crowded field. Fortunately the recording of these songs gives no cause for complaint: voice and piano are clearly focused and in ideal balance. As for the musicians, they offer stimulating, possibly unique couplings for the cycle and provide strong competition for my preferred version for baritone, that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Christoph Eschenbach. I doubt if they are finished with Schumann.
Texts and translations are supplied in the booklet, as well as a thoughtful note by Richard Wigmore.

 

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