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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang, D957 [50:40]
Die Taubenpost, D965a [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
German texts & English translations included
HYPERION CDA68288 [73:21]

I was astonished to discover that I reviewed the superb recording of Winterreise by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake as long ago as February 2014. We’ve had to wait a long time for a Schubertian follow-up, so it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I sat down to listen to their account of Schwanengesang.

Schwanengesang is in no sense a song cycle. There are no thematic cross references, such as we find in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte or in some of the Schumann cycles; nor is there any kind of narrative as in Schubert’s two Wilhelm Müller cycles. Instead, we have seven songs to poems by Ludwig Rellstab and six settings of poems by Heinrich Heine, all gathered together after the composer’s death by his publisher, Tobias Haslinger. Onto these thirteen songs Haslinger grafted a final envoi in the shape of Die Taubenpost, which sets a poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl. Incidentally, it will be noted from the heading to this review that Hyperion’s track listing is very specific, presumably at the artists’ insistence: Die Taubenpost is treated as a separate entity.

As I said, I approached this disc with keen anticipation; it was evident almost at once that I would not be disappointed. ‘Liebesbotschaft’ benefits from Finley’s relaxed, even vocal production. The words are not only delivered with great clarity; they are also intelligently savoured, though not in any exaggerated fashion. Finley’s tone is firm and beautifully focussed and his command of line is enviable. Julius Drake is an ideal partner; his touch is delightful and subtle and he is ‘with’ his singer at all times. Happily, their performance of this song is a harbinger of what is to follow. ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ provides a strong contrast. Though Finley and Drake begin it in quite a restrained fashion they build the performance patiently and powerfully, drawing the listener in. In his excellent notes, Ricard Wigmore refers to the “grandly sombre vein” of this and one or two others among the Rellstab settings and that’s how ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ comes across in this performance, which has a strong sense of foreboding.

I admire the approach to ‘Ständchen’. The performance has an exquisite melancholy to it and it’s all the better for the restraint employed by these artists until they reach the last stanza when there’s suitable ardour. ‘In der Ferne’ receives a remarkable performance. Finley and Drake invest the music with intensity and darkness. This is the most Romantically brooding of the Rellstab settings and the present performance is magnetic. Even the brief venture into the major key does not dispel the darkness on this occasion. In ‘Abschied’ the piano accompaniment is suggestive of a pony and trap bowling along the road. That might imply a lightening of the mood and I’ve heard the song done – and done effectively – in that way. However, these artists have other ideas. Somehow an air of melancholic resignation is never quite thrown off’; this, you sense, is a departure with many a regretful backward glance.

The six Heine songs set superior poems and call forth from Schubert an even deeper response than was the case in the Rellstab settings. This is immediately evident in ‘Der Atlas’ which here receives a towering performance. Because Finley sings in a low key the elemental nature of the piano left hand writing is accentuated; Julius Drake achieves this marvellously, providing a tremendous background to Finley’s powerful delivery. ‘Ihr Bild’ is sung and played with terrific suppressed tension: I have the impression that the performers have their eye on the word ‘Heimlich’ (‘mysteriously’ in Richard Wigmore’s translation) which occurs towards the end of the first stanza. By contrast, the performance of ‘Das Fischermädchen’ is graceful and relaxed.

The last three Heine settings take us to a new, deeper level, both in terms of the music and, on this occasion, in terms of the performances too. Initially, ‘Die Stadt’ is full of suspense but then, in the third and final stanza Finley ramps up the vocal power and the singing is infused with bitterness. Julius Drake’s pianism is here a major contributor to the atmosphere. At the start of ‘Am Meer’ pianist and singer suggest the vast horizon of the sea viewed from the shoreline. As the song progresses the sadness of the poet’s loss is palpable. And then comes ‘Der Doppelgänger’. From the hushed tension of the opening the performance builds inexorably into shattering intensity. This is a gripping reading.

I strongly suspect that in live performance Finley and Drake make a pause after ‘Der Doppelgänger’. Hyperion allow a decent interval between it and Die Taubenpost. This song is capable of more than one interpretation. I’ve heard it performed – successfully – as a slightly jaunty envoi to bring the audience down from the intensity of the last three Heine songs. Finley and Drake have other ideas, though. Their performance is tinged with melancholy and it’s paced a little slower than is often the case – as Richard Wigmore reminds us, the marking is ziemlich langsam (fairly slowly). In the last stanza the pigeon’s name is revealed: it’s ‘Sehnsucht’ (longing). When the song is sung in this fashion there’s a strong and very valid suggestion that the longing is unfulfilled.

This is an extremely fine account of Schwanengesang. In any performance of songs, the attention will understandably focus a good deal on the singer, who has both the melodic line and the words. Gerald Finley’s imaginative, characterful and beautiful singing here compels the listener’s attention. However, it would be a grave injustice to overlook the marvellous contribution of Julius Drake, whose pianism is insightful and a consistent source of pleasure. Theirs is a true partnership. This performance is in every respect a worthy successor to their Winterreise. It’s been well worth the wait. I wonder if these fine artists have any plans to record Die schöne Müllerin as well: that would be more than welcome.

Earlier this year I went to a recital by another distinguished baritone, Roderick Williams (review). Introducing the recital, he admitted that programming Schwanengesang in concert or on disc can be a bit of a problem. The two cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, are sufficiently substantial that they can constitute a full programme in their own right. The posthumous collection to which Schubert’s publisher gave the title Schwanengesang isn’t quite long enough to be a standalone item. Often singers will offer some additional Schubert songs. Roderick Williams chose to pair Schubert’s songs with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and that worked well, I thought. Gerald Finley proposes a different solution, pairing Schwanengesang with Brahms’ late Vier ernste Gesänge. The link is a good one in that both the Schubert and Brahms songs were composed right at the end of their respective composers’ lives.
These songs were composed in the last year of Brahms’ life at a time when there was much to make him ponder mortality. Clara Schumann was not long for this world – she died just two weeks after the songs were completed – and, as Richard Wigmore points out, the composer himself was exhibiting the early symptoms of the liver cancer that would claim his life within a year. As he had already done with Ein deutsches Requiem, Brahms turned to the Bible and made his own selection of texts for these powerfully searching, introspective songs. Richard Wigmore says that they are “designed to comfort the living and, indeed Brahms himself.” I’d take very slight issue with that statement in the sense that much of the music in these songs, especially the first two, is quite uncompromising and I hear less of the consolation that’s so readily evident in Ein deutsches Requiem. So, for instance, the music of the first song, ‘Denn es gehet dem Menschen’ (For that which befalleth the sons of Men) is dark and implacable, especially at the start and finish of the song. The piano part here and in the other songs is a substantial one, almost orchestral in its range, and Julius Drake plays the music magnificently, bringing out a wealth of colourings.

‘Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle’ (So I returned and considered) is, like the first song, a setting of words from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The music is stoic and pessimistic in tone, qualities which Gerald Finley brings out very well. He’s just as responsive, though, when the setting achieves repose of a kind at the close. ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ (O death, how bitter) is initially intense, Brahms seemingly adopting a reproachful tone. At last, though, acceptance and consolation come in the second half of the song, beginning at ‘O Tod, wie wohl tust du dem Dürftigen’ (O death, acceptable is thy sentence). Brahms responded to these lines with the most beautiful music in these four songs and Finley’s performance is deeply satisfying, not least thanks to his seamless legato. The final song, ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete’ sets the famous passage from St Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians (Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels). Here is the only music in the work that is not in a slow tempo and there’s fine urgency in the present performance. However, at the words ‘Wir sehen jetzt durch einen Spiegel in einem dunkeln’ (For now we see through a glass, darkly) the tempo broadens out again and the music is full of lyrical eloquence, albeit the lyricism is of a profoundly serious type. Finley’s excellent command of line is much in evidence once more as he and Drake bring these songs to a moving conclusion.
This is a deeply satisfying disc. The music is magnificent and the artists serve both composers marvellously. Engineer Ben Connellan has recorded the performances in an ideal fashion with voice and piano in very good balance with each other. The booklet contains excellent notes and full texts and translations, though I do wish Hyperion would use a slightly larger font. That, though, is my sole quibble about a first-rate disc.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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