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Gerald Finley
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)
Don Juan’s Serenade Op. 38 No. 1 [2:54]
It was in early spring Op. 38 No. 2 [2:45]
At the ball Op. 38 No. 3 [2:39]
By day or by night Op. 47 No. 6 [3:39]
The mild stars shone for us Op. 60 No. 12 [3:37]
Only one who knows longing Op. 6 No. 6 [3:36]
As over burning embers Op. 25 No. 2 [2:18]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839–1881)
Songs and Dances of Death (1875-77) [22:16]
Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
War Scenes (1969) [15:13]
Charles IVES (1874–1954)
Memories (A) and (B) [3:46]
Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928)
Shall I compare thee? [2:03]
Wolseley CHARLES (1889-1962)
The Green-Eyed Dragon [4:48]
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone); Julius Drake (piano)
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 18 October 2007
Original language texts and English translations included
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0025 [70:39]

 

Experience Classicsonline


For this Wigmore Hall recital Gerald Finley and Julius Drake chose a programme that was technically and emotionally demanding and one which, moreover, challenged their listeners. The recital darkens in mood as it unfolds.

They begin with a Tchaikovsky group. The three songs from Op. 38 set words by Alexey Tolstoy. There’s an error in the booklet, where Tolstoy’s dates are given as 1883-1945 - but Tchaikovsky wrote these songs in 1878! I think there may have been some confusion between the novelist Alexey Nickolayevich Tolstoy (1883-1945) and Alexey Kostantinovich Tolstoy, the Russian poet, who lived between 1817 and 1875. I believe the two were related but it is Alexey Kostantinovich’s verses that Tchaikovsky set.

Finley and Drake convey well what annotator Andrew Huth aptly describes as the “bravura swagger” of ‘Don Juan’s Serenade’. The other songs from Op. 38 fare equally well. ‘It was in early spring’ is, for the most part, gently melancholic in tone and the music suits Finley’s lovely tone and easy legato very well. ‘At the ball’ is also a melancholy song – the melancholy of a gentleman – and it responds well to Finley’s manly timbre. As for the remaining Tchaikovsky offerings, ‘By day or by night’ is more overtly passionate and Finley does it very well, while his singing of the lovely ‘The mild stars shone for us’ is simply masterful.

With Mussorgsky we move on to what is musically stronger meat. These four songs are an ideal vehicle for Finley’s histrionic gifts. He gives a superb account of the first song, ‘Lullaby’ and I particularly admired the spare, concentrated atmosphere that he and Drake distil at the very start.  He invests the next song, ‘Serenade’, with a sinister legato; after all, this is Death’s serenade. The listener is left in no doubt that something rather unpleasant lurks just beneath the surface of the music.  The third song, ‘Trepak’, is a chilling melodrama and this particular performance benefits from Finley’s biting singing and from Drake’s superbly evocative pianism. Finally we hear ‘The Field Marshal’. This powerfully macabre drama is magnificently done, with Finley searingly intense. Both artists work as one to bring us a superb account of these songs.

The Rorem cycle was written for the great French baritone, Gérard Souzay and he and Dalton Baldwin first performed it in Constitution Hall, Washington D.C. in October 1969, during an American recital tour. I wonder what Souzay’s performance of these extraordinary pieces was like? I have them on an earlier recording by Donald Gramm with Eugene Istomin, which was originally released on the Desto label in 1969. My copy is a Phoenix CD (PHCD116), issued in 1991. The songs were composed in just ten days, using prose passages selected by Rorem from Walt Whitman’s Civil War diaries, published as Specimen Days in 1882. Andrew Huth’s excellent booklet note quotes from Rorem’s own diaries in which he makes clear that the songs were his protest against the Vietnam war. That is made even more explicit in the dedication of the songs, not reprinted in Huth’s note, which reads:

“To those who died in Vietnam, both sides, during the composition 20-30 June 1969”

I don’t think I know of another piece of music in which the horrors of war are more graphically described. John Adams’ The Wound Dresser taps a similar vein – he also sets words by Whitman – but his chosen text is a poem rather than prose and somehow Whitman’s poetic imagery, though vivid, is softer than his prose, precisely through versification. I found it was particularly unsettling to listen to these songs during the recent terrible events in Gaza – and in saying that I express no view as to the rights and wrongs of what has gone on there in recent weeks.

I wouldn’t wish to express a preference between the Gramm and Finley performances of the songs. It’s noticeable, however, that Finley’s reading is more spacious – he takes 15:13 for the cycle compared with Gramm’s 12:10. The difference is most marked in the first and last songs where, in both cases, Gramm takes about a minute less than Finley. I don’t think their delivery of the notes differs significantly but Finley seems inclined to make more short pauses between phrases. Both approaches seems valid to me and I think both performances are absolutely gripping.

Rorem chose a tough subject for these songs and the music is comparably tough. There’s none of the grateful lyricism that one encounters so often in his songs. As Andrew Huth puts it, the musical style is one of “heightened speech in the vocal line, with a piano part that serves as punctuation, commentary and background.” The first song, for example, is graphic and angry in tone, with a sharply dissonant accompaniment. Finley articulates the feelings of rage and futility that are all too evident in Rorem’s music. There is some lyricism in the second song, which tells of a young, dying soldier in his hospital bed but the lyricism is poignant and troubled. I cannot bring myself to write about the third song, ‘An Incident’, which contains one of the most horrifying descriptions of physical injury that can ever have been set to music. What Whitman lays bare here is the horror and brutality of war in the nineteenth century, even before all the technological “advances” of the twentieth century made things even worse.

These songs make very uncomfortable listening indeed and Gerald Finley’s vivid, dramatic performance, shot through with evident passionate sincerity, certainly does not give his listeners an easy ride.

After such a serious recital the audience deserved a lightening of the mood and Finley and Drake provide it with three well-chosen encores – about which the singer himself provides neat little notes in the booklet. The two Ives miniatures are a delight; the gentle sentimentality of the second one is beautifully judged. Rautavaara’s Shakespeare setting is an interesting novelty and the final item by Wolseley Charles, written for the inimitable Stanley Holloway, sends everyone away smiling, thanks to Finley’s infectious narration.

This is an exceptionally fine recital and I’m delighted that it’s been preserved on disc for us to enjoy over and over again.

John Quinn  

 


 


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