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.