Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Gramophone-award winning partnership of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake turns to perhaps the most celebrated song-cycle of them all. Schubert’s Winterreise is a masterpiece of despair, astonishing in its bleakness and enthrallingly mesmerizing as the journey continues. Finley brings all his considerable dramatic powers to his performance—and all but submerges them under the ice.
Richard Wigmore writes that ‘before Winterreise Schubert had composed individual songs of pathos and despair, even of apocalyptic terror. What was new about the cycle was the spareness and angularity of much of the writing, the work’s sustained godless pessimism and its
obsessive exploration of a mind veering between delusion, ironic self-awareness and nihilistic despair. The water music, limpid, turbulent or benedictory, of Schubert’s earlier Müller cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, yields in Winterreise to musical emblems of trudging and stumbling, bareness and exhaustion, derangement and frozen, trancelike stillness’.
R E V I E W S:
SCHUBERT Winterreise • Gerald Finley (bar); Julius Drake (pn) • HYPERION 68034 (74:37 Text and Translation)
In my doubtless insufficiently humble and excessively rash estimation, Gerald Finley is arguably the world’s greatest baritone singer at the present hour. While there are some singers with even richer, more beautiful voices—though Finley’s voice is certainly beautiful enough—he has no peer in the alliance of that voice to a supremely penetrating intelligence and the finely honed technique needed to unite the two into interpretations of not simply great but immortal stature. Here, at the zenith of his career, he has now chosen to commit to disc his conception of the song cycle that rightly ranks as the Olympus of the male Lieder singer’s art. Does it meet the hopes and expectations that rightly attach to it? In a word, yes. This is not just a great recording; this is a landmark in the Lieder discography that, like its predecessors by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey, will be held up to future generations as an inexhaustible model to be studied and emulated without ceasing.
I mention Fischer-Dieskau and Prey not just because they are superlative interpreters—they are, but there are others that could be mentioned as well—but because they are exemplars of two contrasting approaches to the art of Lieder singing. Fischer-Dieskau of course famously and almost single-handedly (can one say “single-voicedly”?) revolutionized that art by his incredibly nuanced use of accent, dynamics, tone color, breathing, and other devices to inflect and highlight not just phrases but even individual words to a previously unparalleled degree, bringing extraordinary richness of actual and intimated meanings to the texts. Prey, by contrast, remained the nonpareil exponent (albeit one updated and modified from his early 20th-century predecessors) of an older approach to Lieder interpretation, in which emphasis is placed on beauty of voice and sustaining of a legato vocal line, allowing the music to makes its textual points with minimal interpretive intervention. While this contrast is overstated for the sake of distinctive comparison—certainly Fischer-Dieskau gave full due to sustaining a legato line as needed, and textual inflection was hardly absent from Prey’s art—it is useful for placing singers along an interpretive spectrum for those who have a strong preference for one approach over the other. Each one carries its risks, of course; the more interventionist approach can fall prey to mannered eccentricity, the less interventionist approach to undifferentiated superficiality.
Gerald Finley is definitely on the Fischer-Dieskau end of the spectrum here—indeed, as with a number of his contemporaries, further out on that axis than F.-D. himself ever ventured. Doubtless there will be those who will find Finley’s approach not to their taste. But, for me, Finley is a singer who, like Prey or Fritz Wunderlich (and unlike Fischer-Dieskau, who could occasionally become a bit too arch) seems inherently incapable of doing anything unmusical. Never does he give way to the slightest touch of ostentation, preciousness, or any other excess; at every point his judgment and instincts are unerringly true. As it would be overkill to go through his reading line by line, or even song by song, I will cite just a few instances for purposes of illustration. Listen, for example, in the opening “Gute Nacht,” to how he scales down his voice for the closing stanza that begins “I will not disturb you as you dream” and speaks of closing the house door softly; in “Die Wetterfahne” to the rush of despairing anger at the declaration “Their child is a rich man’s bride!” in “Auf der Flusse” to the rising crescendo of anguish that matches the increasing torrent of the river’s flow under its icy crust; and in “Der greise Kopf” to the added tremble in his vibrato at the word “graut” (shudder), followed by a draining of the voice to a nearly vibratoless tone in the following line “How far it is still to the grave!” Finally, there is Finley’s stunningly masterful close, the eerily unworldly sound he imparts to his voice in the final song “Der Leiermann.” It is as if the protagonist has indeed died, but somehow is still not aware of that; in his disembodied, spectral state, he beholds the hurdy-gurdy player with studied bemusement, not yet knowing their true relation as Death come to fetch him.
But Finley is only half the program here, and no review would be just that did not give equal tribute to pianist Julius Drake. Here we have a keyboard artist who is not just an accompanist—what a pallid word in this context!—but a fully equal partner to his singer, a name to invoke alongside the legendary Gerald Moore. In the staggered rhythm of the opening motif of “Wasserflut” that depicts the protagonist’s uneven, stumbling gait; in the galloping hoof-beats of the courier in “Die Post”; in the deep, descending, despairing final chords of “Der Wegweiser”—at these points, and in every bar of the entire cycle, Drake matches, underlines, and advances Finley’s astonishing interpretation to absolute perfection, with masterful variations in tone color, touch, rhythm, and dynamics. This is a musical partnership made in Heaven, and one hopes and prays that we will be blessed with many more instances of it on disc for posterity.
All praise to Hyperion as well for a top-quality production here. The striking cover illustration of a solitary tree in the midst of a desolate field with a wintry background sky could not be bettered. Not only are elegant booklet notes and full German texts with English translation provided, but so are the original key and time signatures and tempo indications for each song, something I don’t ever recall seeing included before but are most welcome. The recorded sound is ideal in every aspect one could name.
There is only one thing that could have made this release better—if instead Hyperion could have released on DVD or CD the concert performance I attended of these two artists in this work in Philadelphia on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. It was an occasion that beggars description; Finley literally seemed to become the despairing wanderer before one’s very eyes, with an absolutely riveting intensity. He took even greater chances interpretively than on this recording, such as reducing his voice in the last stanza of “Gute Nacht” to a threadbare whisper, and every one of them paid off. I’ve been privileged to witness some great performances in my life, but this easily ranked in the top 10, perhaps even the top five, of them all.
In my own collection I already have recordings of this cycle with Gerhard Hüsch, Hans Hotter, Peter Anders, Fischer-Dieskau (two), Hermann Prey (two), Matthias Goerne (from the complete Hyperion Schubert Lieder set), and Roman Trekel (from the competing complete Naxos set I reviewed in 35:5). This version tops them all. It is not just a great performance of Winterreise; it is the very stuff of musical immortality. Highest possible recommendation, a guaranteed 2014 Want List entry, and an immediate nominee for the Classical Hall of Fame.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
The rate at which recordings of Schubert’s supreme song-cycle emerge is astounding, and even more striking is how fine many of them are. I’ve had the good fortune to listen to dozens over the years, but I have only heard a tiny handful which are on a level with this one, which I regard as faultless. Perhaps more than any other recording the singer and the pianist are in equilibrium: they must have worked on the recording for ages, but it often sounds as if Julius Drake has just had an idea—and they are all good ones—and Gerald Finley picks up on it; or vice versa. This is creative interpretation, but there is no sense, as there has been with some performances, that Schubert is being impertinently ‘improved’. Finley sings with the utmost naturalness but explores the doomed wanderer’s soul in a way that comes close to being shocking in its painfulness. From about halfway in the cycle, he descends into an acknowledgement of reality which is at the same time a projection of his own torture onto the external world. It’s charted with dreadful power. This, to my mind the greatest of all bleak works of art, here receives its perfect rendering.
Performance: 5 (out of 5); Sound: 5 (out of 5)
-- Michael Tanner, BBC Music Magazine [5/2014]
Works on This Recording
Winterreise, D 911/Op. 89 by Franz Schubert
Gerald Finley (Baritone),
Julius Drake (Piano)
Written: 1827; Vienna, Austria
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