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Gerald Finley [Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke]
22 Jan 2014

Gerald Finley: Winterreise

Tenor or baritone? Everyone will have their own individual preference about the voice type best suited to Schubert’s Winterreise — and about the manner in which the songs should be performed (narrated, or acted?).

Gerald Finley: Winterreise

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gerald Finley [Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke]


The youthfulness of the protagonist may be best evoked by the high plangent quality of the tenor voice; moreover, Schubert was himself a tenor and it was in this register that the songs were first performed by the composer in an intimate salon before an audience of his closest friends. His choice of keys might also suggest that it was the tenorial range and timbre that he had in mind.

However, shortly before he died, Schubert’s close friend, the Austrian baritone Johann Michael Vogl, who was then in his fifties, performed the cycle for the composer. The expressive variety and range of the baritone voice can offer fresh insights and communicate powerfully; it is now as common for Winterreise to be performed by baritones, and on this occasion Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley added his name to the list of those seeking to make this cycle his own.

Accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, Finley’s reading is one which combines poise and eloquence with bleakness and resignation. Solemn, restrained and dignified, there are none of the flourishes and angst-ridden gestures which have sometimes charged other interpretations; but, the protagonist’s suffering is never in doubt — indeed, the darkness of the register adding to the air of solemn woe.

The performers took a little time to settle into the dramatic and emotional setting of Wilhelm Müller’s poem. The clarity which marked Drake’s gentle introductory chords and ornaments in ‘Gute Nachte’ (Good night) was characteristic of the way the accompaniment gestures were meticulously ‘picked out’ throughout the cycle, expressive details and embellishments enriching the narrative. But, despite the contrasts between Finley’s veiled pianissimo suggesting the delicately shifting moonlight shadows which keep the traveller company and the angry explosion of frustration at the start of the third stanza, the song felt a little ‘four-square’, the piano’s onward tread relentless, the only rhythmic rubato the slight pause before the change to the major mode for the last stanza. Similarly, while Finley’s articulation of the German was exemplary, in these opening songs at times the texts were almost a little too clearly enunciated, lacking a conversational ease and naturalness.

‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The weather-vane) had more assertive energy, climaxing in the angry repetitions ‘Was fragen sie nach meinen Schmerzen?’ (What is my torment to them?) and the accumulating haste of the final line. After this outburst, the piano’s dry staccato crotchets at the start of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ (Frozen Tears) were disturbingly cool, the sparse texture and low register adding to the sense a heart chilled and numb. Finley’s impassioned timbre in the final stanza hinted at the fierce heat encased within the outer shell, but the piano’s parched closing motifs suggested both tentative steps upon the ice without and the heart’s struggle to escape the numbness.

This battle with deadening dejection continued in ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness), where Drake’s agitated, turbulent accompaniment contrasted with the intense focus of the vocal line: the repeated line ‘Mit meinen heißen Tränen’(with my hot tears) was particularly unsettling.

By the time we reached ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree), pianist and singer were into their stride. The rhetoric of the piano introduction established a narrative air, and Finley’s beautiful melodic lines and excellent diction made for exquisite story-telling. At times during the recital I found the pace a little too slow, overly grave and ponderous; but here the forward momentum and occasionally foreboding tone created a sense of driving inevitability. The nuances at the opening of ‘Wasserflut’ (Waterfall) — the slight delays in Drake’s introduction, the melancholy of the falling octaves which end the vocal lines and point the rhymes, and the deflections and shifts in the harmony — were wonderfully expressive. Finley skilfully controlled his vocal power to convey concentrated yearning and anguish.

In ‘Auf dem Flusse’ the juxtaposition of the Finley’s dark low voice and the distinctly articulated repeated quavers and triplets of Drake’s accompaniment created a thrilling tension which erupted in the final stanza, the baritonal forceful resonance revealing the protagonist’s inner schisms: ‘Mein Herz, in diesem Bache/ Erkennst du nun dein Bild?’ (My heart, do you now see your own likeness in this stream?) The volatile surges of ‘Rückblick’ and the violent pounding in the bass developed this mood of conflict and confrontation. Here, Finley found great variety of colour, the voice unfailingly mellifluous and the final line infused with sweet wistfulness.

After a short pause, the magical lightness of Finley’s higher register and the mischievous rubatos and accelerations in Drake’s accompaniment were as enchanting as the will-o’-the-wisp of which Finley sang. As in so many of the songs, the performers demonstrated an intelligent grasp not just of the overall structure of the cycle, but also of the miniature architecture of each individual song. Here, the repetition of the final line reinforced the protagonist’s despondancy: ‘Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab’ (every sorrow will find its grave).

The unaffected ease of ‘Fruhlingstraum’ (Dream of spring) brought freshness, and suggested genuinely happier times. The singer’s gifts as a communicator came to the fore: first we had the startling drama of the crowing cock which awakens the dreamer, the piano’s stridency depicting the shriek of the ravens; then the trance-like reticence of the dreamy reflections of the half-awake protagonist as he gazes at the patterns on the window panes and slips into reverie. ‘Einsamkeit’ reached expressive heights, the repetitions of the final line laden with pain. Drake set a crisp pace in ‘Die Post’ (The mail-coach); the subtle pause before the shift to the minor key was wonderful.

A slow tempo was adopted for ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head). This, together with the eloquence of the falling melodic phrases and dry accompaniment chords, established an aptly despairing mood — a real sense of inner despair and horror; but, I did feel that some of the tempi in the cycle’s closing songs were a little on the ponderous side, and the long pause that Finley, understandably, took before ‘Im Dorfe’ (In the village), regrettably halted the dramatic and emotional impetus. ‘Die Krähe’ (The crow) was more abandoned and the piano’s fragmented opening in ‘Letze Hoffnung’ (Last hope) was fittingly unsettling. This approach — the accompaniment ‘niggling’ at the singer in an understated but disquieting manner — continued in ‘Im Dorfe’, the trilling motifs indicating the cruel disillusionment that the slumbers will experience when daylight returns and reality inevitably quashes their dreams. Similarly, Drake’s skipping compound rhythms in ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion) seemed to mock the singer as he followed the dancing, ‘friendly’ light.

The bass line of the piano introduction to ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The signpost) possessed a gentle mournfulness which was extended by the quiet modulation to the major mode in the second stanza, the tender beauty of Finley’s pianissimo, the deadening evenness of the monotone repetitions of the last line — ‘Die nock Keiner ging zurück’ (from which no man has ever returned) — and by the wearying rallentando of the piano’s closing cadence.

‘Das Wirthaus’ was similarly drained of forward propulsion, although the rising intensity and focus of the close anticipated the impetuousness of ‘Mut!’ (Courage!). I thought the decision to run straight on into ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns) was a misjudgement. It is just at that point in the cycle where the re-ordering of Müller’s original sequence has such a striking effect: the optimism of ‘Mut!’ at this point of the cycle is almost a bizarre parody, even surreal, and, following this breathless impulsiveness, the shock of the return to the dark resonances of ‘Die Nebelsonnen’ is enhanced by a moment of dazed silence, however brief.

The last song, ‘Die Leiermann’ (The organ-grinder) was a superb study in weariness and dejection, but ultimately not in hopelessness, the final lines pressing forward, the wayfarer not yet defeated.

Finley did not so much embody the protagonist, experiencing and depicting his suffering in the present; rather, he seemed an elder man re-living a journey made in the impetuousness of youth. There was a sense of wearily and painfully returning to past experiences; experiences which have been revisited in memory many times before, so that the twists and turns of the emotional journey are etched in the singer’s conscience and body, unavoidable, inerasable.

Claire Seymour

Gerald Finley and Julius Drake will release a new recording of Winterreise (Hyperion) in March 2014.

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