Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Liederkreis Op. 39 [26:59]
Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers Op. 36 [15:59]
Liederkreis Op. 24 [21:30]
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 2-4 November 2011, 8 May 2012
HYPERION CDA67944 [64:20]
Gerald Finley gives us a very particular interpretation of Schumann’s songs; namely weighty and serious. Finley’s voice is very beautiful and he is capable of encompassing a huge variety of styles and tone. Here he is primarily deep and authoritative, but this carries its own benefits. He conveys a world of emotion through small variations in tone and timbre and has a repeated ability to send a chill down the spine or to inflect a phrase so as to suggest hitherto unsuspected meaning.
You see all of this at work in his interpretation of the Eichendorff Liederkreis (Op. 39), and it’s interesting to compare his approach to that of his recent Hans Sachs which benefited from lightness of touch. Here the opposite is true: he brings weight and depth to these songs which some may think weighs them down a little too much. However, you can’t argue with the power that he brings to songs like Auf einer Burg or Wehmut. It also allows him to bring a new dimension to songs like In der Fremde (No. 8) or Im Walde: these seem to tread the line between seriousness and levity, but Finley leads us more quickly to the serious conclusion that the composer makes obvious only in the final lines. Not everything is at this level of seriousness, though. Die Stille is tripping and flighty in its take on child-like happiness, helped enormously by Drake’s well tailored accompaniment. The beautiful stillness of Mondnacht (“perhaps the world’s loveliest vocal nocturne”, according to Richard Wigmore in the booklet notes) is to die for; Finley tapers down his voice to a near whisper at times, growing in strength as the song progresses, while Drake surrounds him with repetitive chords that are almost hypnotic in their magic. Schöne fremde builds gloriously, and the ebullient bliss of Frühlingsnacht will win over all but the most cynical of listeners.
The Heine cycle, Op. 24, is just as varied and as effective. The two opening songs find Schumann (and Finley) in outgoing mood, but Finley’s dark, silken voice is perfect for the sentiments of lost love found in the third song, while Drake’s highly sensitive accompaniment seems to circle around the vocal line without ever quite meeting it. Likewise, the restless, trembling piano line in Schöne Weige meiner Leiden is a brilliant illustrative accompaniment to the poet’s aching sentiments of farewell. The seriousness of Finley’s voice helps to lend extra weight to the sentiment of songs like Berg’ und Burgen, and it brings remarkable intensity to the brief, but extremely powerful subsequent song Anfangs wollt’ ich. Mit Myrthen und Rosen encompasses both the poet’s intensity and the musician’s optimism, Finley and Drake summoning up the heights of their artistry in a performance that is reflective and ambiguous, setting the seal on the whole disc.
The Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers (Six poems from the songbook of a painter) were a discovery to me. They’re certainly not as famous as the two Liederkreis sets, but I found them delightful. The booklet notes go out of their way to point out the poor quality of the poetry, but there’s something endearingly whimsical about them, and Schumann’s music elevates them to something special. Sonntags am Rhein combines optimistic patriotism with the tone of a hymn, while Ständchen and Nichts Schöneres are lovely odes to Clara: the cycle was composed when Robert and Clara’s marriage was all but certain. An dem Sonnenschein is light-hearted nature painting, while Dichters Genesung is a bustling, light-hearted song about the queen of the elves, which ends much more merrily than most supernatural encounters. The culmination of the cycle, Liebesbotschaft, is a solemn, serious message of love, which finds Finley a little stretched on the top note on which the movement inexorably peaks, but it’s still a lovely performance of a very fine song.
Finley’s tone may not appeal to everyone in this release, and some will want more variety of sound. He perhaps lacks the universal expressiveness of Fischer-Dieskau or the breezy lightness of Olaf Bär, still my overall preference for the two Liederkreis settings, but he brings a weight and intensity that is all his own. The recorded sound is lovely, though some may think it captures Finley a little too closely to the detriment of the piano sound.
Simon Thompson 

Finley brings a weight and intensity that is all his own. 

see also review by John Quinn