Herr Oluf, Op.2/2; Tom der Reimer, Op.135a; Die wandelnde Glocke, Op.20/3; Erlkönig, Op.1/3; Edward, Op.1/1
Schwanengesang, D957 [Texts by Heinrich Heine – Der Atlas;Ihr Bild; Das Fischermädchen; Die Stadt; Am Meer; Der Doppelgänger
Histoires naturelles [Le paon; Le grillon; Le cygne; Le martin-pêcheur; La pintade]
Folksong arrangements: Lemady; Greensleeves; I wonder as I wander; Bird scarer’s song; The crocodile
Gerald Finley (baritone) & Julius Drake (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 14 May, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Wigmore Hall has been experimenting with various strategic approaches to the problem of how to position Schubert’s six powerful Heine settings, published after his death as part of “Schwanengesang”, in a recital programme. Gerald Finley and Julius Drake offered a radical solution, preceding and balancing them in the first half of this concert with some Loewe songs, all except one ballads of comparable dramatic intensity. The second half brought a comprehensive change of textual and musical language, reflected in a different mood in the relationship between performers and audience. Spellbound concentration was replaced by mutual enjoyment of French irony and English folksong sentiment and heartiness.
The almost total absence of Loewe from recital programmes outside German-speaking countries is a mystery which takes some explaining. The figure of 400 songs which is normally quoted may be an under-estimate; there can be no doubt that he was extraordinarily prolific. Normally associated with narrative ballads, his oeuvre in the medium of Art Song includes conventional Lieder and humorous songs.One of the latter was represented in this recital by “Die wandelnde Glocke”, a setting of Goethe’s cautionary tale of the boy who prefers to spend his Sundays in the open air rather than at worship and becomes convinced that the church bell can descend from the tower and chase him to church. Finley’s characterisation of the pious narrator and Drake’s depiction of the bell as it waddles in pursuit in the mind of the boy were highlights here.
I have never been as persuaded that Wagner was right in counting Loewe’s “Erlkönig” superior to Schubert’s as I was on this occasion. The latter’s continuous pounding triplets seem crude by comparison with the way Loewe’s shimmering accompaniment creates a ghostly mood. Schubert gives us an unchanging view from a seat in the stalls, rather as early film directors did, before the introduction of alternating long shots and close-ups. Loewe assigns signature music to each of the characters and has their utterances in close-up. Finley enhanced the effect by film-style acting. He delivered the child’s appeal to his father with eyes lifted upwards, while the father himself scanned the surroundings looking for an explanation of what his son had heard. How insinuatingly he articulated the sibilants of the Erlking’s part, each word audible even at a daring ppp. The surprise of his threat to use force and the stabbing discord at the final word, “tot” (dead), here cut short with chilling finality, also have pre-echoes of powerful cinematic techniques. This was all too credible a villain: the Erlking’s trademark arpeggiated climb upward from bass depths to sweet head voice can easily slip into caricature but Finley avoided this trap.
“Herr Oluf” is Herder’s take on the Erlking story. No vicarious seduction of offspring here: the knight faces the devil’s daughter head-on. Finley played her as leering initially, then disdainful when rebuffed and revelling in the promise of visiting plague and sickness upon his kin. The change to dark, solemn music for Scene 2, the re-union with Oluf’s mother, with its ominous groups of three staccato quavers, then the Death Scene with a background of festive music included to intensify the contrast with the grim discovery of his body, was revealed as a master-stroke of tone-painting.
The supernatural in “Tom der Reimer” was a great deal less forbidding in a poem which Loewe has set as more a nursery rhyme than a piece of grand guignol. The poet’s Faustian bargain seemed worth taking on, the seven years of slavery a reasonable penalty for exchanging kisses with one so frank, charming and playful. In Finley’s characterisation Tom was hypnotised from first sight, his declaration of love warm and sincere. Drake’s beautifully graced depiction of the silver bell reinforced the attraction of the “Elfenkönigin”.
Ending the Loewe group with “Edward” was an apt stepping-stone to the Heine songs. The baritone’s part in the increasingly tense dialogue between son and mother demands a range of all but two octaves from A flat below middle C to G and some thunderous declamation. The explosion from both musicians at the moment when Edward admits to killing his father was as shocking as the orchestrally accompanied appearance of a monster in a horror movie. Finley spared nothing in volume as he roared his admission and finally in Edward’s pitiless curse. But his characterisation of the mother’s claustrophobic panic was just as vivid, assisted by Drake’s almost mocking treatment of the repeated downward figure in the accompaniment. I have rarely heard such cheering of the first group in a recital as was aroused here.
Heine’s poems differ in one significant respect from Loewe’s ballads: they re-create subjective experiences rather than relating fictional narratives. Thus the opening of ‘Der Atlas’, potent as it was, remained on the right side of bel canto; the singer’s lament was utterly convincing. Drake’s extended use of the sustaining pedal at the end was sobering.The contrast in ‘Ihr Bild’ between the sunny, smiling face the poet imagines and the reality of losing his beloved was not as incisively defined as most singers make it; it was left to the weight of the accompaniment to express the great burden of pessimism pressing down on the poet. This was one of several imaginative ideas the artists had to offer. Not all were one-hundred per cent successful. The key chosen for ‘Das Fischermädchen’ was unusually low, presumably to equalise the darkness of mood throughout the cycle, to which that song’s lilting rhythm and lightly hovering vocal line are an exception. Elsewhere Finley’s dark, resonant lower register was an ideally firm basis for his characterisation.
To launch ‘Am Meer’ Finley chose a mezza voce of calculated poignancy, promising to make the song the saddest, as opposed to the most devastating of the six. A hint of flatness undermined the plan initially but his ability to colour his tone came into his own later in the song: the wail in which he encapsulated the “unglückselige Weib” at the end was piercing. The sound he employed when he recognised his own double in ‘Der Doppelgänger’ was more of a moan, as if he was trapped in stone. All this could be appreciated through the singer’s clear enunciation, though he sometimes overdid the final consonants.
Ravel’s setting of Jules Renard’s animal poems is intended to follow the speech rhythms of the French language and is therefore predominantly smooth and even. The narrator adopts a position of super-objectivity. It is like watching a reality TV show in which little happens, the pictures left to speak for themselves without commentary, while the pianist plies his trade, illustrating by sound alone the movement and activity of the creatures. It seems that the singer has an unrewarding task but Finley proved himself as much a master of this rarefied atmosphere as he is of the theatrical world of the German Romantics. His implied irony at the behaviour of the proud peacock and the reaction of the other birds on a sultry summer afternoon was priceless. His French enunciation seemed a touch more natural than his German and every word could be heard in ‘Le grillon’, even though it started ppp and became even softer! The audience held its breath as much as the fisherman in ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ as he whispered his description of the kingfisher’s short stay on the end of his rod. Conversely he brought ‘La pintade’ to a triumphant conclusion in full voice.
Britten’s folksong arrangements seem to be gaining popularity with recitalists. In this selection Finley had to use all his vivid communication skills to compete with the showpiece writing for the pianist. His wild exuberance in the “Bird scarer’s song” was complemented by the sobriety of “Greensleeves” (nagging off-beat notes in the accompaniment) and the quiet alternation of voice and piano in “I wonder as I wander”. The robustness of Finley’s dramatic baritone was confirmed by his still being at his ringing peak for the final arrangement, “The crocodile”.
Two encores, closely associated with this partnership, were offered, Ravel’s ‘Chanson à boire’ (“Don Quichotte à Dulcinée”) and Louis Emanuel’s “The Desert”, given with all the melodramatic poses of a film from the silent era. This concert, by two musicians at the height of their powers, will endure long in the memory of those who attended it.