Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886) The Complete Songs – 3
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone) Julius Drake (piano)
rec. All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, 2013
Sung texts with English translations enclosed HYPERION CDA67956 [71:07]
Hyperion has made a speciality of complete cycles of great
Lieder composers' works. The starting point was the mammoth
Schubert cycle supervised and masterminded by Graham Johnson and
several other series have followed suit. They don’t rush but let
things develop at a manageable pace. The first disc of the seven-CD
Richard Strauss cycle was reviewed at MusicWeb International by Terry
Barfoot in May 2005, and the last disc I reviewed in July 2015. The
Liszt cycle started in February 2010 and I had the honour to review
volume 1 in March the following year (review).
Volume 2 followed a year later, reviewed this time by John France in
August 2012 (review).
Both discs were highly regarded.
After tenor Matthew Polenzani and mezzo-soprano Angelica Kirchschlager
we get bass-baritone Gerald Finley in volume 3. Here is another important
song interpreter who seems ideally suited to the songs he – or
Hyperion – has chosen. He recently issued a highly successful
Winterreise, also with Julius Drake at the piano. The Schubert
cycle is probably the Everest of the Lieder repertoire, which requires
so much of the singer – not only vocally but also interpretatively.
But the Liszt songs are also demanding, so diverse in styles and languages.
In the present volume there are songs in German, Italian, French and
a single song in English: a setting of Tennyson. Finley is an excellent
linguist – almost a necessity today for those on the international
opera circuit – and his enunciation of the text is beyond criticism
– an absolute necessity for a Lieder singer. He has a naturally
beautiful voice, and even though he is today well past 50 there are
no detectable blemishes – in spite of his taking on some really
heavy roles. He has sung Hans Sachs for instance. A beautiful voice
is in itself good but no guarantee of its possessor being a good Lieder
singer. In fact Gerald Finley knows exactly how to use it to achieve
the effects he wants. He can spin a thin thread of tone at pianissimo
while still maintaining a firm grip on the text. On the other hand he
can fill the recording venue or the concert hall/opera house with a
wealth of rich and powerful baritone sonorities to match even Hans Hotter.
He can express authority as well as vulnerability with the same ease.
The first three songs to texts by Heine are among his best and are rather
well known. They also illustrate the problem with Liszt’s songs
– if it is a problem – that he was an inveterate reviser
and re-starter. Among his seventy-plus songs a great number exist in
several versions and some in more than one setting. Morgens steh’
ich auf und frage (tr. 1) is here presented in its third version
and Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen (tr. 3) in its fourth
version, while this setting of Ein Fichtenbaum (tr. 2) is the
second one. Often they differ quite a lot but it is not necessarily
the case that one version is an improvement on another. It is more a
change of aesthetics. One of the interesting things about following
this series is the possibility of comparing versions. It would have
been easier if the various versions of a specific song had been on adjacent
tracks. As it is one has to jump from one disc to another. For pedagogical
reasons the ideal layout of a complete cycle would be to present the
songs in strictly chronological order, and where several versions exist
they would have been grouped together. I imagine that one reason for
not choosing that principle is that the outcome wouldn’t make
for very satisfying recitals for continuous listening.
The long Weimars Toten (tr. 4) is a setting of a poem by Franz
von Schober, Schubert’s friend, whose An die Musik is
one of Schubert’s masterpieces. In the 1840s Schober and Liszt
were friends. The song was composed in 1848 and was published in a volume
celebrating the centenary of Goethe’s birth. The song is, after
a long and bombastic piano introduction, a toast to the famous literary
greats of Weimar, Wieland, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, to inspire the
citizens of the city to create a ‘new dawn’ for poetry.
The song itself is rather bombastic but it is a brilliant piece for
Gerald Finley to expose his wide vocal and emotional scope.
The three Petrarch Sonnets are masterworks in whichever version you
choose. The second version, which Finley sings here, is sparser than
the initial version, sung by Matthew Polenzani in volume 1. It reflects
the still young composer’s emotions whereas the second embodies
the reflections of a middle-aged man. They were not published until
1883, three years before Liszt's demise. Finley is masterly here.
I don’t believe I have heard I’ vidi in terra angelici
costume sung with such restrained intensity ever.
Die Fischerstochter (tr. 9), with its chilling dissonances,
is deeply gripping as also is Und wir dachte, der Toten, one
of Liszt’s last songs, completed in 1884. The two Victor Hugo
settings are fascinating. Gastibelza, a bolero from 1844, where
the piano paints a broad canvas of colours is one of those works that
couldn’t have been written by anyone else. La tombe et la
rose from the same year is more restrained but equally personal.
In both songs the pianist has his hands full and following the piano
part is an adventure in itself.
Le vieux vagabond, another large-scale ballad, sets the singer’s
vocal range a severe test. Gerald Finley passes with flying colours.
Finally we reach Go not, happy day, written by Liszt’s
senior by two years, Alfred Lord Tennyson, who survived him by six.
The song ends tantalizingly in mid-air, another example of the ageing
master searching new and untrodden paths.
With the versatile Julius Drake at the piano any singer can be assured
that he/she has the best possible support and the rapport between Finley
and Drake feels like twin-souls working together. Excellent recording,
excellent liner notes by Susan Young. Couldn’t be better.
The first volume in this series was praised to the skies by most critics
including myself. The second, which I recently bought but haven’t
had time to listen to yet, also had rave reviews and here is the third,
which only confirms The Guardian’s verdict: ‘One
of the most important recording projects of recent years.’ Now
we eagerly await the next instalment.
1. Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage S290 third version
2. Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam S309 second setting [2:56]
3. Anfangs wollt‘ ich fast verzagen S311 fourth version
4. Weimars Toten S303 [8:13]
5. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass S297 second setting [2:36] Tre sonetti di Petrarca S270 second version [15:00]
6. Benedetto sia ‘l giorno [4:53]
7. Pace non trovo [4:25]
8. I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi [5:41]
9. Die Fischerstochter S325 [5:50]
10. Und wir dachten der Toten S338 [2:25]
11. Die Vätergruft S281 second version [5:43]
12. Gastibelza (Bolero) S286 [8:13]
13. La tombe et la rose S285 [3:39]
14. Le vieux vagabond S304 [9:15]
15. Go not, happy day S335 [3:12]