Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley made his Tanglewood debut last night with an eclectic program, partnered with British pianist Julius Drake. The program was a deeply committed exploration of the world of art song. Finley sang with a sumptuous, gleaming tone, impressively and beautifully consistent from the bottom to the top of his range, and from hushed pianissimi to thundering fortissimi. Drake played with a subtlety and imagination that summoned up memories of Gerald Moore and Benjamin Britten, responding to the singer and to the harmonies without ever drowning out his partner.
The first half of the program was an assortment of works by two pioneers in the art-song genre, Carl Loewe and Franz Schubert. This half was bookended with the two composers’ settings of Goethe’s Erlkönig. In between were assorted songs and a number of ballads, narrative songs telling tales bloody, ghoulish, and whimsical. (You can hear some of these ballads here. Goethe’s poem of the Erl-king, a malicious spirit luring a child to his doom as his father tries to rush the boy home, had a seminal effect on art song composers of his day. Loewe and Schubert completed settings within three years of each other, and both composers’ settings were their first published compositions. It was a treat to get the chance to hear two chillingly effective but strikingly different approaches to the same text in one evening, and these two ballads provided the blueprint for Finley’s and Drake’s delivery through the evening. Finley used different vocal tones to differentiate the characters, from the smooth, seductive, otherworldly Erl-king, to the thin, frightened tone of the boy, and the deeper, darker bass-baritone of the father. Finley also shaped gestures differently, and gazed in different directions to summon up the different characters. He sang from memory with exemplary diction and admirable sensitivity, inflecting repeated lines differently to suit the drama in the text; and Drake was right there with him, coloring, shading and supporting skillfully.
Loewe’s Tom der Reimer (Tom the Rhymer), another ballad in which a minstrel runs off with the Queen of the Elves, offered more chances to hear multiple characters evoked in a single song. Another of his ballads, Die wandelnde Glocke (The Wandering Bell) tells Goethe’s comical tale of a truant boy scared straight by a church bell that comes waddling after him after he skips a Sunday church service. Here, Finley and Drake showed that sometimes the best way to make something truly funny is to perform it with a minimum of exaggeration and splendid comic timing. This contrasted starkly contrast with Edward, Loewe’s take on a traditional murder ballad: when a mother confronts her son with the blood on his sword, he admits first to killing a hawk, then a horse, then his father. He pledges to roam the world, to abandon his home, wife and child, and finally implicates his mother herself as a guilty party in the murder. Finley used a dark bass-baritone tone to make the son truly frightening, and Finley and Drake offered a wide palette of colors, ranging from a gripping pianissimo as the mother asks in fear what her son has in store for her to bleak Wagnerian majesty as the son owns up to the murder, and his mother’s imagined complicity.
Apart from Erlkönig, the Schubert set offered a range of lesser-known songs. Grenzen der Menschheit (Limits of Mankind) was vividly descriptive, but more hymn than story. Drake played the introduction to this song with Beethovenian grandeur, and Finley handled the song’s mystical philosophy just as ably as he sang the more dramatic ballads. Der Zwerg returns to the ghoulish world of the revenge ballad: a jealous dwarf murders a queen after she forsakes him in favor of the king. Finley again drew distinction between the fearful, light-textured queen and the dark tones of the homicidal dwarf. Drake’s piano playing, sparkling, with a restless figure in the right hand, suggested flowing, rippling water, while the left hand alternated between doubling the voice and offering contrasting commentary. Mayrhofer’s poem Der Schiffes, of a boatman defying a tempest, was sung with a jaunty belle indifference. Der Kreuzzug (The Crusade) contrasts the observations of a monk in his cell with knights riding to a distant battle with a return of the hymn-like tone. Finley impressed by breathing full-inflected life into the final strophe, in spite of a melody comprised largely of repeated notes suggesting the humdrum uniformity of the monk’s cell. Der Einsame, a breezy charm, depicts a hermit glorying in his solitude, with only chirping crickets for company; here the repeated uniformity of the tune gave way to light with the improvisational-sounding ending in the final verse. But hymns and jaunty charm gave way to a harrowing, vivid rendition of Schubert’s setting of Erlkönig to close out the first half.
The range of emotions and styles of the German first half of the program gave way to a lighter touch in the French and English second half. The first work after intermission was Ravel’s song cycle, Histoires naturelle, drawn from Jules Renard’s collection of prose portraits of animal caricatures of human personalities. (You can hear the pair doing this cycle in the studio on this disc. Le paon offers Renard’s send-up of the misunderstood Romantic hero, in this case a preening and clueless peacock dressed to the nines and waiting for a betrothed who will never come. Drake summoned up the nobility of an Indian prince in his playing, while Finley drew giggles from the crowd with bone dry delivery of the absurd text and an obnoxiously nasal, yet still somehow beautiful tone when imitating the peacock’s cry. Le grillon depicts a skittish cricket’s fussing about his house; Drake’s evocation a cricket chirping in a summer field was impressive, abd Finley delivered a range of beautiful, well produced musical colors without getting louder than pianissimo. Le cygne returns to the world of water as a swan fruitlessly tries to nibble on clouds reflected on the surface of a lake. Finley managed to deflate this Romantic image at the end with another unexaggerated delivery as he described the swan bringing up worms every time he plunges, and growing fatter than a goose. Finley and Drake brought out the transcendent beauty of the image of Le martin-pêcheur (The Kingfisher) perched serenely on the end of a fishing pole. The final song, Le pintade, is a ferociously rhythmically complicated song describing a pugnacious trouble-making of a guinea hen. A momentary memory lapse reassured us that Finley is indeed human, but didn’t detract from the depiction of amused exasperation one would have with a mischievous animal or an impish child.
The final set drew from four folk song settings by Benjamin Britten (also available on CD here . The strophic folk tune offers less room for dramatic inflection, but Finley varied the strophes and his impeccable diction worked just as well in English as in German and French for Lemady, Greensleeves, and She’s like the swallow. The final song returns to the world of the comic ballad, in the Jonah-esque tale of a man swallowed by The Crocodile. Here, Finley acting out some of the actions of the verses during the nonsense refrain repeated between each of the verses, demonstrated his knack for being amusing by mostly underplaying.
Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall was not at capacity, but large numbers of singers and musicians were in attendance and were warmly appreciative throughout. The whoops and applause at the end of the program induced Finley and Drake to return for two encores: Britten’s arrangement of The Bird Scarer’s Song, and Louis Emmanuel’s loopy tale of disaster and rescue, The Desert. Finley hammed it up to greater comic effect in these songs, and the droll detachment with which Drake switches octaves in the midst of the tale of a doomed adventurer in the desert may have been the funniest moment in the evening. The evening ended with a bang, as Finley closed The Desert with a clarion and sustained high E-flat, while Drake whaled away at cadential figures underneath. It brought down the house.
Sadly, the pair will not be repeating this program in the Boston area in the near future (Finley is performing variations on this program in Ottawa and Ravinia in the next week); but he remains at Tanglewood to perform arias from the Mozart-da Ponte operas and Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée with Lorin Maazel and the Boston Symphony tonight, Saturday and Sunday; details are at BMInt’s Upcoming Events.