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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Schwanengesang D957 Part 1 (Ludwig Rellstab) [50:40]
Die Taubenpost D965a (Johann Gabriel Seidl) [4:22]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121 [18:17]
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
rec. 2018, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
HYPERION CDA68288 [73:21]

Gerald Finley, now in his late fifties, is a truly versatile singer. Early he excelled in a number of Mozart roles, but he has gradually widened his repertoire and recently tackled with great success one of the real heavy-weighters, Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. He has also devoted himself to contemporary opera, including several world premieres, which attracted much attention. In a more intimate format he has also been a sensitive song recitalist. A recording of Schubert’s Winterreise some years ago was critically acclaimed, and with the same pianist as then, Julius Drake, he has now set down some of the same composer’s last songs, issued under the collective title Schwanengesang. The title was not Schubert’s but the publisher’s, Tobias Haslinger. A group of seven songs by Ludwig Rellstab was juxtaposed with six songs by Heinrich Heine and to avoid the unlucky thirteen, this baker’s dozen was amended with Johann Gabriel Seidl’s Die Taubenpost. To call this mix a song cycle is a bit presumptuous, since there is no story line that unites them, not even a unifying mood. This has led some singers to insert other late songs by Schubert and sometimes reshuffle the order of the song. No such gimmicky here. Finley and Drake present the songs in the order of Haslinger’s original concept, and most of us who have lived with these songs for decades in this order will certainly feel comfortable with this.

It is also a pleasure to note that, in spite of a long and busy career, Finley has retained his vocal capacity admirably. There is no notable wear, no widening of vibrato, no unsteadiness. The beauty of tone is undiminished, his care over nuances apparent and his enunciation of the text exemplary. He has, as long as I have known him, always been an utterly expressive interpreter, and this recital is no exception. I felt from the very beginning that I could relax and trust him, that he wouldn’t go astray and leave me alone in the wilderness. Liebesbotschaft was just as warm and inward as I had hoped, the fateful Kriegers Ahnung was sung without big gestures. In Frühlingssehnsucht I could feel how painful spring can be for sensitive people. The ever popular Ständchen was soft and inward and very beautifully sung. The melody was allowed to flow without intrusive accents. Aufenthalt has to be powerful and dramatic, but Finley still invests it with a certain degree of restraint, which isn’t unbecoming. Fateful and tragic is In der Ferne, and it is sung here with deep feeling. He rounds off the Rellstab section with a lively Abschied.

The Heine group opens with a dark and intense Der Atlas, followed by a deeply emotional Ihr Bild, involved but still with restraint. This is very typical of Gerald Finley, whether in opera or songs, that he never over-eggs the cake – and that makes it only tastier. The balanced readings of Das Fischermädchen and Die Stadt confirm this observation. Moving readings of Am Meer and Der Doppelgänger conclude the Heine songs, the latter superbly nuanced, and the ‘afterthought’ Taubenpost, Seidl’s only contribution to Schwanengesang, could hardly be bettered. This is probably Schubert’s last song – unless Der Hirt auf dem Felsen is even later.

In a way Vier ernste Gesänge, Brahms’s Schwanengesang, is even more touching than the Schubert cycle. The texts were chosen by Brahms himself from various portions of the German translation of the bible. The third, O Tod, wie bitter bist du, is even from Ecclesiasticus, also known as The Wisdom of Sirach in the Apocrypha. The low tessitura underpins the seriousness of the songs, and Finley sings them with gravitas but also with comforting warmth. True basses, like Robert Holl in Hyperion’s complete Brahms cycle, or Kim Borg in a DG recording from 1959, may come closer to what Brahms expected to hear, and besides them Hans Hotter’s 1951 recording and Swedish Bass-baritone Erik Saedén on a BIS recording from 1976, are truly involving. Saedén like Holl takes the last song a full minute slower than the average timing of around 5 minutes – a tempo that Finley observes – and considering that Brahms indicates con moto in his tempo designation, the established 5 minutes is probably in line with Brahms’s wishes. Hairsplitting, maybe, but there are options that work and Saedén’s is a good example of that. At any rate Gerald Finley’s readings of both Schubert and Brahms are utterly attractive and should make this a desirable disc for all lovers of the central German Lieder repertoire. Julius Drake, regular partner to Gerald Finley, is an ideal accompanist and a further asset is Richard Wigmore’s well-informed and well-written liner notes.

Göran Forsling
Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ John Quinn

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