sun 16/12/2018

Gerald Finley, Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall review - sublimity in 18 serious songs | reviews, news & interviews

Gerald Finley, Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall review - sublimity in 18 serious songs

Gerald Finley, Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall review - sublimity in 18 serious songs

Profound insights but no ponderousness from a great bass-baritone and piano duo

Finley and Drake: the perfect duo

Earth stood hard as iron in parts of this awe-inspiring recital from a true song partnership, but theirs was an autumnal odyssey, not a winter journey. For all their preoccupation with death and occasionally desolation, neither Schubert at 31, in the last utterances gathered together as Schwanengesang ("Swansong"), nor Brahms, completing the Four Serious Songs on his 63rd birthday, was ready to leave this earth. You could argue that there's smiling spring in some of Schubert's inspirations, but not the way Gerald Finley or Julius Drake saw them, tellingly placing Brahms's monumental tetralogy at the heart of the programme between Schubert's Rellstab settings and his explorations of superior Heine.

The intent was clear from the first song, "Liebesbotchaft" (Love's message) - the distant look in Finley's eyes, the sustained supernatural clarity in Drake's playing, suggested a painfully remembered happiness. There were only enigmatic half-smiles at best; the famous "Serenade" was the most rethought of all - slow but intense, sung with magical vocal chiaroscuro, a yearning without possibility of realisation. If this sounds unduly sombre, it wasn't. The colours of Finley's mostly velvety, cello-like bass-baritone partly dictated a darker approach, but the stage mastery we know from his operatic performances also made a unity out of Schubert's infinite variety without crushing it.

Schubert SchwanengesangDrake was theatrical in the best sense, too, stressing the heart's pounding in the repeated bass notes of "Aufenthalt" (Resting Place), plunging after the interval into the anguish of "Atlas", supporting the bleakness of three of the Heine settings, moving with Finley to a truly shattering operatic climax in "Der Doppelgänger" (The Wraith), stretching pauses and silences with an intensity derived from the careful placing of the notes around them. Greedy of me, I know, but with playing as sublime as this, I'd have liked two more final inspirations for piano solo too - one of Schubert's Impromptus, the second perhaps of Brahms's Op. 119. The rich, clear sound Drake produced on the Steinway in the spaciousness of Middle Temple Hall was always a thing of wonder.

It was as well that Schubert's most solemn heights were reserved for the second half. The first climaxed in the granite strength and, ultimately, the melting, exultant lyricism of the Brahms. How wonderful that this most human of composers should end a liftetime of inspirations with a celebration of love (New English Bible text in English, please, not the "charity" of the King James version) as greater than faith and hope.

What a dark tunnel we have to pass through first, though, and what a challenge range-wise to any singer. Finley may not quite have the very lowest bass notes in his armoury, and the top when softer has to be sung in falsetto - it's thrilling when he can take the full weight up there - but he used what he had to convey a perplexing mix of emotions. And the bittersweet sunshine that finally emerges in "O Tod" when death comes as a blessing to those in old-age despair could not have been more hallowed.

No encore was required after the infinite lightness of the last Schwanengesang, "Die Taubenpost" ("Pigeon post"), usually an afterthought set to the odd poet out, Johann Gabriel Seidl. That great singers' pianist Gerald Moore thought the artists should leave the stage after "Der Doppelgänger", but Finley and Drake made sense of the sequel as a fugitive vision, no less "metaphysical" (Moore's term for the bigger song) in its way. Still, what we got as an afterthought was perfectly in tune with the elegiac mood - "Du bist die Ruh", ineffably floated with the same introspection that had held the audience spelllbound throughout. Every song a masterpiece, all of them unforgettably gathered under a black velvet mantle. I hope there's another chance to catch this pair's Winterreise live somewhere soon. Mark Valencia, reviewing a Wigmore Hall performance for The Arts Desk, was not so impressed, but that was over four years ago. Finley is now a fully-fledged master of his art.

The stage mastery we know from Finley's operatic performances made a unity out of Schubert's infinite variety without crushing it

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Editor Rating: 
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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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