Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, known to many for his lead role in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic at the Met and elsewhere, beginning with the work’s premiere at the San Francisco Opera in 2005, made his debut appearance at Tanglewood on August 2nd with a recital in Ozawa Hall featuring 19th– and 20th-century German lieder, French mélodies, and English songs. He was partnered by British pianist Julius Drake, who is also his partner on numerous recordings and is a world-renowned award-winning chamber musician and accompanist, holding his own series of song recitals entitled “Julius Drake and Friends” in London’s historic Middle Temple Hall.
They opened with a set of four ballads by Carl Loewe (1796-1869), a contemporary of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) who was better known at the time because he concertized, singing his own works, often accompanying himself at the keyboard; but today he is programmed infrequently. This set was followed by one of six lieder by Schubert. After the pause, Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Histoires naturelles, a set of five songs to prose poems of Jules Renard composed in 1906, was followed by a set of four songs by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), two folk song arrangements – Britten did not merely transcribe their melodies, however, but rather rewrote them dramatically, to turn them into true art songs – and two settings of Walter de la Mare poems, ending with the latter’s tall tale, The Crocodile.
The program was well constructed, progressing chronologically and from longer, dark works that often involve Gothic narratives to lighter, humorous pieces, several of which contained references to elements in the earlier works. For example, Ravel’s Le grillon [The cricket] recalled the insect heard in Schubert’s Der Einsame [The Hermit]; and Finly moved from texts in German to ones in French and ended with ones in English — some of which, such as Greensleeves, were familiar to everyone. The first half of the program opened with Lowe’s and closed with Schubert’s treatment of Goethe’s poem Erlkönig [Erlking]; both composers followed the text in similar manner in both the vocal lines and the accompaniment, demonstrating that while Schubert’s gifts were remarkable, Loewe’s equally strong ones do not deserve to be relegated to the hidden archives and are worth dusting off for more frequent outings. Even the two encores, Britten’s The Bird Scarer’s Song and British bandmaster Louis Emmanuel’s (1819-1889) humorous Victorian parlor-song style melodramatic ballad, The Desert, fit seamlessly into the whole, completing the circle back to the form of the opening songs while pushing forward the exaggeration of the closing one. Few of these works could be classified as “chestnuts,” but all could be called masterpieces. None of them are the sort of works that often form the standard sentimental Romantic fare of song recitals, so they make some demands on the audience to stretch its habits and minds in different ways.
The works also featured different portions of Finley’s striking broad and firm vocal range, with the earlier ones calling on his lower register which is very bass-like, and the later ones featuring his upper one, equally strong without any shrillness or straining for the high notes. They also allowed him to display progressively his gestural and dramatic interpretive skills, always appropriate to the texts and the moods of the music, culminating in some exaggeration in the final numbers that nonetheless never became slapstick stand-up-comedy-routine-like. Finley’s diction was impeccable in the three languages, with most words being crystal clear and perfectly intelligible. He appeared to have a brief memory lapse in Ravel’s La Pintade, the last of that set, but otherwise performed smoothly from beginning to end.
Drake’s partnership throughout was astoundingly brilliant. He supported Finley perfectly, instinctively copying his volume level, becoming slightly more prominent in the moments when the singer was silent without ever becoming dominant or overly loud in the introductory or concluding piano solos, and generally with restrained gestures, so as not to call attention to himself. Drake had scores on his instrument’s music stand, but was clearly completely familiar with the music.
In short, this was a truly beautiful recital, Gothic darkness of some of the works notwithstanding (the maternally encouraged patricide in Lowe’s Edward is particularly gruesome), from every point of view. These two musicians, Finley and Drake, are among the very best in the world in this format, about which they are both clearly passionate, and in which they were at the top of their form this evening. This recital will certainly remain in my memory for a long time.