Wigmore Hall Live – Gerald Finley & Julius Drake

0 of 5 stars

Don Juan’s Serenade, Op 38/1; It was in early spring, Op.38/2; At the ball, Op.38/3; By day or by night, Op.47/6; The mild stars shone for us, Op.60/12; Only one who knows longing, Op.6/6; As over burning embers, Op.25/2
Songs and Dances of Death
War Scenes
Memories (A) and (B)
Shall I compare thee?
Wolseley Charles
The Green-Eyed Dragon

Gerald Finley (baritone) & Julius Drake (piano)

Recorded 18 October 2007 in Wigmore Hall, London

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: October 2008
WHLive 0025
Duration: 71 minutes

Back in the days of the Cold War this might have been marketed as a superpower confrontation in song, Russia versus the United States, with death as a central theme seen from different cultural standpoints by writers and musicians. Now it remains quite a grim programme, though without the political dimension.

The performers stand so high in contemporary esteem that expectations run high whenever they announce a concert or recording. Gerald Finley is a sovereign artist, both in the opera house and on the recital platform, a master of different styles and a relentless explorer of musical territory. Vocal gifts, combined with acute musicianship give him a position comparable to that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at his peak, while a partnership with Julius Drake is an assurance of quality and musical reward.

The “Songs and Dances of Death” will probably be the main selling-point of this disc. They seem to fit the talents of these two artists so well. Mussorgsky’s grisly cycle with its syllabic word-setting has few pretensions to melody. The composer’s intention was to mirror the inflections of everyday spoken Russian. The debate surrounding the performance of the work is the extent to which the interpreters should embellish what the composer has supplied. Drama can easily be distorted into melodrama and sometimes grievously has been on record. Finley is wholly musical, showing absolute respect for the written notes, while possessing the vocal skills of a great stage (and radio) actor.

His characterisation of Death is not one-dimensional, even in a single song: the ghostly visitor in ‘Lullaby’ is reassuring and consoling but becomes increasingly earnest as the mother’s agitation grows. Vocally Finley covers his top notes and does not resort to an emasculated tone in the final lines; ppp they may be but there is always bass resonance present to keep the menace close to the surface.

The scene-setting for ‘Serenade’ needs a flowing, elastic line, stretching upwards and downwards across a wide range. The effect here is to establish the atmosphere of a still spring night so alluringly that the accent on the first mention of Death (“Smert”) comes as a shock. The motivic melody of the serenade itself is suitably mesmeric but each verse is approached in a slightly different way. A slight increase in tempo in one, greater use of head-voice in another, more prominent decorations in the piano part in a third. The music seems to be drifting away inconclusively in a gradual diminuendo and a long tonic pedal, so that Death’s exultant claim of ownership again comes as a genuine coup de théâtre.

‘Trepak’ is riveting from the start. We feel the presence of the Evil One before he actually appears, so powerfully suggestive is Finley’s leering delivery of the opening lines. When the gruesome dance begins, his voice takes on just a hint of crudity as he presents himself as a fellow reveller to his drunken victim, throwing the arm of companionship around his shoulders before summoning up the storm as his true ally. Drake has his own revelation in the final verse: the insistent dance music itself is reduced to fragments, as if reflecting the death-convulsions of the doomed peasant.This is an intensely visual interpretation, as is ‘The Field-Marshal’. Tumultuous sounds of battle give way to nocturnal stillness. Then, as Death appears, Finley initially depicts the reaction of the watching multitude, which has first to be cowed into submission before the Field-Marshal can make his triumphant pronouncement. He has all the voice needed for his imperious message, delivered to the accompaniment of a quasi-patriotic anthem, but it is not all blazed out without nuance.

From symbolic treatment of death to the gruesome reality: Ned Rorem’s uncompromising settings of Walt Whitman’s eyewitness accounts of US Civil War battlefields. The musical style here is in a sense the ne plus ultra of Mussorgsky’s methods. The links to conventional melody and harmony are slim. The “accompaniment” in ‘A Night Battle’ consists largely of punctuation marks, sometimes fragments of illustrative music for the narration. The text (in prose) is set for the voice absolutely in the rhythms of English speech. The shape of the vocal lines undulates, initially with no obvious relevance to the words but before long it settles into a kind of melodic repetition, with the motif of a doleful falling-fifth prominent. Sometimes the rhetoric is enacted in the music (the surge of energy at “the flashing moonbeam’d woods” or the commander’s cry “Charge men, charge”). This sort of music makes heavy demands on a singer’s musicianship. Finley’s intonation is impeccable and his imagination put to work to bind the disparate material into logical shapes.

The other texts bring from Rorem a variety of treatments. ‘An Incident’ resembles an objective report, dryly factual in style, with no emotional response until the final phrase “but he died in a few minutes”. ‘Inauguration Ball’ has a stylised dance accompaniment, which ironically persists while the suffering of wounded and dead combatants is recounted. ‘The real war will never get in the books’ is a sober concluding judgement, much of it unaccompanied. Initially this had seemed forbidding music; these two artists make the settings seem inevitable.

Tchaikovsky, seven of whose songs open the recital, sets more commonplace musical challenges. With the control that Finley has over his voice the awkward corners in the music, particularly the movement from resonant low register to liquid top, are smoothly turned. The tone may not have the roundness of an Italian baritone but the combination of verbal precision and legato is impressive throughout this programme. However, it is in the initiative of their interpretations that Finley and Drake excelled on the evening preserved here. The gilt-edged fulfilment of the partnership’s promise is evident from the opening song of their Tchaikovsky group. The familiarity of ‘Don Juan’s Serenade’ has led some recent performers to exaggerate the pace and power of the accompaniment and the histrionics of the singing. Here there is no risk of prematurely exhausting the audience, or of conforming to current fashion. Drake wisely does not set off at express speed, nor does he hammer the keys but he does bring out the subtleties of the prelude, with the two hands moving in opposite directions. Finley does not portray a self-confident monster but a chivalrous suitor with a threat concealed, as in the second verse, where his tone is suave for the reference to Nisetta’s beauty but then hardens when Don Juan refers to fighting a duel with any rival.

Every one of these songs is given a distinct flavour but again the search for illumination among the detail of familiar and much-performed songs is well illustrated by “None but the lonely heart”. I am not talking about being different for the sake of it but of revealing what is present in the music as notated on the page and can be integrated into a consistent overall reading. Drake’s prelude, for example, brings out the halting, weary mood implicit in the rhythm. When the voice enters, its lack of energy confirms what the pianist has already predicted. After a passage in which he tries to assert himself in a mini-crescendo “Glyazhu ya v dal” (I look into the distance), Finley sinks even deeper into feebleness, “dalyoko!” (so far away!). Briefly he turns to protest at his condition, barking out the word “kak” (how much). Then the tone turns unexpectedly disembodied at “Vsya grud gorit” (my heart is burning), followed by a remorseless diminuendo, which, however, includes one last defiant gasp of full voice on the final word “strazdhu” (suffer). This is interpretation of the highest order and typical of the recital as a whole.

The mood is lightened by the encores, which Finley introduces. In Charles Ives’s “Memories”, nineteenth-century America is vividly recalled, both in the breathless excitement of an unsophisticated audience before curtain up at a backwoods music hall and in the nostalgia of a folk-tune passed down through the generations. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s setting of Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is in lively fashion with exuberant leaps and pounding accompaniment. Finally comes a playful but vocally resourceful performance of the John Charles Thomas favourite “The Green-Eyed Dragon” composed by Wolseley Charles.

The “Wigmore Hall Live” series reflects the high quality of chamber music and art-song available at this admirable venue. Many of the 25 CDs so far issued preserve events of special value (and at a reasonable price). This beautifully recorded example is certainly one of them. Texts and translations are supplied.

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