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Performances

Einojuhani Rautavaara [Photo by Heikki Tuuli]
02 Jun 2014

Gerald Finley, Wigmore Hall

For the final recital in his three-concert residency at the Wigmore Hall, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley offered the familiar and the new in striking juxtaposition, Franz Schubert’s posthumously published Schwanengesang enclosing Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Rubáiyát, which was written specially for Finley.

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A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Einojuhani Rautavaara [Photo by Heikki Tuuli]

 

Schubert’s seven settings of Ludwig Rellstab, which form the first part of Schwanengesang, frequently evoke the murmuring brooks and whispering breezes so common to the Romantic landscape, and pianist Julius Drake can deftly paint an aural soundscape, the rippling, rustling motifs always even, clear and subtly supporting the voice. But, what was noticeable through this first sequence of songs was how often Drake was the driving force shaping the songs’ narrative and architecture. The baritonal register at times shifted the accompaniment into deep realms, and as the dark bass lines articulated the progressions, at times poised, then pacing forwards with composure, it was as if the pianist’s left hand was sketching the underlying structure while the figurations and melodic interjections and dialogue above coloured in the details of these vignettes of unrequited love.

Above this sure foundation, Finley was relaxed and eloquent in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) and ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’ (Spring longing). He produced intensity within the quietness of the former, rising gently to convey the poet-speaker’s affectionate appeal to the brook to ‘Rausche sie murmelnd/ in süße Ruh’ (Murmur her into sweet repose). Finley was not afraid to delay and emphasise the anxious questions — ‘Wohin?’, ‘Warum?’ — which close each stanza of ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’, while Drake ensured that the ceaseless breeze swept up each hesitant pause into the subsequent verse. The minor tonality of the final verse and the singer’s more agitated, earnest tone communicated the poet-speaker’s growing unrest, and Finley’s closing avowal that ‘Nur Du!’ (only you!) could set free the yearning in his heart was earnest and dignified.

‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) was warm and hopeful, although the telling alternations of major and minor were an affecting reminder that the courting singer is denied the vision of his beloved he desires, and Finley’s concluding phrase, ‘Komm’, beglücke mich!’ (Come, make me happy!), suggested his fear that she may not even hear his song. Fear grew to anguish in ‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place), Drake’s pounding triplet-quavers, with their chromatic harmonic twists, confirming the baritone’s assertion that his grief remains, ever-unchanging. The emphatic diminished chords which open ‘Kriegers Ahnunhg’ (Warrior’s foreboding) were similarly unsettling, and the separate verses of the ballad progressively intensified the soldier’s turmoil, from his dreamy recollections to turbulent intimations of the battle ahead. Finley soared smoothly in the more expansive, arcing lines of the ultimate stanza, and the open tone of his farewell, ‘Gute Nacht!’, resting on the dominant above the final cadence, captured the poignant irony of the tender address.

The highlight of the Rellstab sequence was ‘In der Ferne’ (Far away), Drake’s theatrical prelude and inter-verse commentaries bursting forth, then retreating, creating a sense of high drama. The baritone’s wonderful pianissimo at the bottom of the voice, at the close of the first verse, unnervingly evoked the fleeing fugitive, forsaking family and friends; a shift to the major key, and the firm rocking octaves in the piano left hand, suggested faith that the lover’s message would be carried by the wind home to his beloved, but Drake’s furious ending pitilessly shattered hope, the minor cadence a sustained, brutal cry of denial. The departure in ‘Abschied’ (Farewell) is less melancholic, and Finley brought a warm lyricism to the repeated valedictions, ‘Ade’, while using the minor inflections in the closing verse to convey regret.

The driving excitement of the opening of ‘Der Atlas’ — the first of the Heine settings, which followed the interval — signalled a new tension and economy of expression, the poet’s sparser lines inspiring Schubert, and the performers, to greater intensity. Finley’s power, control and range were much in evidence, in the bitter blast of sorrow that wounds the poet-speaker’s heart and in the hushed pain of his wretchedness. Similarly, while the restrained unison which commences ‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was bleak and mournful, there was a gentle release as the beloved’s smile was recollected, before Drake mercilessly drove home the poet-speaker’s realisation of loss in the postlude.

‘Das Fischermädchen’ provided some emotional steadiness, before ‘Die Stadt’ (The town) rang with tremulous intensity. Drake’s eerie octave oscillations and upper register interjections created a strange, hallucinatory air which lent a dark hue to the poet-speaker’s view of his home, an unease which burst forth in urgent despair, Finley moving from stark restraint to passionate despair as the sun rose to illuminate ‘jene Stelle,/ Wo ich das Liebste verlor’ (the place where I lost what I loved most). I was impressed not only by the performers’ alertness to Schubert’s pictorial details, but also by their sure sense of scale and structure in ‘Am Meer’ (By the sea), from the chorale-like piano melody which embraced the singer’s voice at start, suggesting the gleaming surface of the sea, to the brooding chords of the conclusion.

Adopting a deathly tempo for ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (The wraith), Drake’s Hadean, circling ground bass, and the repetitive returns of Finley’s declamatory melody possessed the sombre ring of mortality, the baritone imbuing anguish with beauty. The shift to the seemingly lighter-spirited ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post) — the last song that Schubert composed — can be difficult to accomplish, but the drifting quality of the question which closes the preceding song, ineffably released some of the tension, while there was no lessening of the sensitivity to textural and harmonic nuance thereby making ‘Die Taubenpost’ a fitting conclusion to an ongoing narrative of yearning: ‘Sie heißt — die Sehnsucht!/ Kennt ihr sie?’ (her name is — Longing! Do you know her?)

Separating Schubert’s two poets was a new work by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which sets Edward FitzGerald’s English translation of Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Rautavaara’s characteristic sound-worlds — by turns mystical, meditative, rhapsodic — are a fitting complement to Khayyám’s lyric quatrains which, rather than delineating a narrative, present the profound feelings and philosophical reflections of the poet on subjects such as religion, love and death.

Originally composed for baritone and orchestra, the composer has prepared a version for piano. He explains in a programme note that each song continues into the subsequent instrumental interlude, which prepares the song to follow (although the songs can be performed separately). In ‘Awake!’, Drake’s rippling harp-like cascades, intimating their orchestral origins, presented a rich Romantic vista of an emergent dawn. The baritone’s broad phrases soared powerfully, the sumptuous dark tone glowing, the text clearly articulated and inflected.

‘And Lately’ was preceded by a thoughtful stillness, the close middle-range lines gradually expanding, exploring harmonic shades and melodic pathways, the hands ever more distant. The Britten-esque vitality of the text setting in this song — Finley’s diction was superb throughout — brought energy and interest. ‘Here with a loaf of bread’ seemed less successful in terms of its rhythmic engagement with the text; and, this brought to attention a recurring ‘weakness’, namely the repetitive nature of the melodic development — perpetually roving stepwise motion, in uniform rhythmic values, which, despite Finley’s sensitivity and lovely sustained, even voice, failed to make a lasting impression. ‘We are no other than a moving row’ introduced more dynamic conflict, in the contrast between the voice’s meandering and the piano’s repeating notes, and the performers built passionately to the song’s climax before a subdued close, underpinned by wavering piano gestures.

The improvisatory piano interlude preceding ‘Oh, make haste!’ gave way to a grander, swinging rhythmic momentum in the opening stanza, reminiscent of the muscularity of some of Vaughan Williams’ songs, before the rippling runs of the opening returned, creating a fervent intensity for the work’s conclusion: ‘The Stars are setting and the Caravan/ Starts for the Dawn of Nothing — Oh, make haste!’

Rautavaara has said that he advises his composition students, “Don't ever try to force your music, because music is very wise and it has its own will. It knows where to go. You have to listen to it, to listen your material which you have chosen. Start with that and then the material will dictate where it wants to go. It's much wiser than you are. Don't push yourself, but try to find out what the music wants to become.” (Interview with Bruce Duffie, http://www.bruceduffie.com/rautavaara.html).

Certainly, this rhapsodic sequence had a roaming, sinuous quality, as if the melodies were searching for their form. Perhaps this is in keeping with the spirit of Khayyám’s philosophy for a rubáiyát is a collection of quatrains which may be re-arranged depending upon one’s interpretation of the poet’s meaning. The result is an appealing work — with diverse timbral and harmonic colours and a vocal melody which soars ardently — but one which is ultimately not very memorable. But, it was, as was this entire programme, performed with generous commitment by Finley and Drake.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 31st May 2014.

Schubert: Schwanengesang; Einojuhani Rautavaara: Rubáiyát (world première).

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