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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Schwanengesang (1828) D.957 [50:40] Die Taubenpost D.965a [4:22] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Vier Ernste Gesänge, Op 121 (1896) [18:17]
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
rec. 2018, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Texts in German and English translation HYPERION CDA68288 [73:21]
The concept behind this recital of uniting two works both written towards the end of the composers’ lives is perfectly valid and sensible, as both sets can be seen as essentially epilogues, or the composers’ farewell to life. The Schubert songs are sung in their original published order, the first part being those set to Rellstab’s poems, then those by Heine, rounded off by the usual inclusion of “Die Taubenpost”, the solitary poem set to Seidl’s verse. They were not necessarily intended as a cycle, of course – that was the canny Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger’s brain wave, although the songs are loosely linked by the idea of a restless yearning for the unattainable.
It astonishes me how many singers with poorly registered voices turn to Lieder as if they require less voice than opera and then intone them listlessly in a lazy, half-baked manner. Gerald Finley is not one of those singers; I have heard and admired him often live in large-scale operatic works to know that he has sufficient heft of voice to fill a big space, yet his demeanour for much of the time here suggests that he fallen, temporarily at least, into the trap of assuming that a persistent half-voice will sufficiently enliven these great songs. If anything, this latest recording represents an exaggeration of the restraint evinced in the Winterreise Finley and Drake recorded for Hyperion and which gave me pause, as expressed in my previous review. Finley has a naturally beautiful tone but it is not enough to croon songs like “Ständchen” in an unvaried mezza voce.
I am also perturbed by the quite frequent indications here that the songs are pitched too low for his voice, as low notes too often groan or fail to resonate. To hear a voice which can truly cope with the range and tessitura of these songs, turn to Thomas Quasthoff who recorded the same combination in the year 2000 for DG and whose bass-baritone suits them better, especially in the more demonstrative passages.
My third reservation concerns tempi. From the very first song, they here are often simply too slow, a choice presumably resulting from the performers’ desire to emphasise the resigned, elegiac tone; this is the case right through to the last Schubert song “Die Taubenpost”, for example, which is listless enervated and sung at lullaby speed, thereby missing the very nervous energy and ambiguity Finley and Drake discuss in their promotional video. Finley almost whispers the text; to hear how it should be sung, turn to Brigitte Fassbaender, John Shirley-Quirk or the young Bryn Terfel. Several songs here are excessively leisurely: “Kriegers Ahnung”, for example, is over a minute slower than Quasthoff’s and the whole cycle takes five or six minutes longer than most other accounts. The only other recording which takes as long over the cycle is from Terfel and Martineau, but their delivery is far more animated and extrovert than here. Exceptions are “Frühlingssehsucht” and “Das Fischermädchen”, which are spritely enough, but I cannot relish a soporific “Taubenpost”.
Brahms’ grave (if you’ll excuse the pun) songs are much more tolerant of a sombre demeanour and Finley brings more voice to their delivery, too. My favourite versions are by Kurt Moll, Kathleen Ferrier and the above-mentioned Quasthoff, whose recording came out as the top recommendation in the BBC Radio 3 Record Review. All of them bring a more trenchant sound to bear on these songs and Finley’s version does not displace them in my affections; his beautiful voice is almost too comforting but he uses the text most expressively.
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