An eager crowd gathered at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory last night for bass-baritone Gerald Finley’s Celebrity Series of Boston debut. The audience had legions of singers and a number of musical luminaries (Murray Perahia, who has experience with this cycle [here] and was on his night off from his BSO gig, sat dead center on the orchestra level). Finley and his frequent recital partner, pianist Julius Drake, took on Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s great song cycle with texts by Wilhelm Müller, which explore the feelings of a spurned young man, abandoned by his love for a richer suitor and reflecting on his loss and alienation during a winter’s journey. The 24 songs last over 70 minutes, and their nuanced shadings of anger, grief, and despair constitute the Everest of song cycles. Finley and Drake offered a towering performance, suitable for a Bostonian bleak mid-winter.
Finley is coming off of Covent Garden performances of Wagner’s Parsifal, adding Amfortas to his omnivorous operatic repertoire. In Amfortas’s wake, the Schubert singing had extra depth and breadth, particularly in the lower reaches of his range. Finley seemed to be working from the Bärenreiter middle voice edition of the cycle, with all the songs taken a whole step down from the original keys. This edition preserves the relationships between the keys, and maintains the cycle’s wide tessitura. Finley was every bit equal to the challenge, delivering a seamlessly consistent tone from the low G-sharps of “Auf dem flusse” to the high G-flats of “Die Post.” Much of the cycle was delivered in gorgeously hushed pianissimos (starting with “You shall not hear my footsteps as I softly close the door” in “Gute Nacht” and running to the near whispered sprechtstimme of “Der Leiermann”), though he could also deliver thunderous defiance and anger in “Rückblick” and “Mut!” His diction was pristine, but more important was his meticulous shaping of the grammar and verbal music of Müller’s German. Every repeated phrase was shaped differently, from the spooky dying away of “Should my heart ever thaw, her image too will melt” from “Erstarrung” to the gathering of strength and courage in “On, then, ever onwards, my trusty staff” in “Das Wirtshaus.” There were some times when he approached notes a little from the bottom, though it sounded to me like some of this brought out suspensions and dissonances with microtonal precision (thinking in particular of the anguished dissonances on “The cold flakes drink my burning anguish” from “Wasserflut”). And there were moments of quiet vulnerability, often pianissimo and with minimal vibrato (“When shall I hold my love in my arms?” from “Frühlingstraum” or the entire final “Der Leiermann”) which were devastating in their naked directness.
But as terrific as Finley’s singing was, you could argue that the star of the evening was the pianist, Julius Drake. I have had the privilege to hear Drake three times now, partnering with Matthew Polenzani in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (my review here), a recital of ballads with Finley at Tanglewood (reviewed here), and last night’s Winterreise. Every time, Drake impresses me more and more as an ideal art song pianist, worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Gerald Moore and Benjamin Britten. Like those two legendary collaborators, Drake’s fingers are servants of a wide-ranging, painterly imagination, with remarkably specific and detailed shaping of phrases that support his singers without ever overshadowing them. Drake’s sense of timing was impeccable, letting some songs linger in the air so their effects could settle in the listener’s mind, while others drove headlong into the following song to maintain momentum. The opening song, “Gute Nacht” was somewhat less inflected from stanza to stanza (though the transition from minor to major in the final strophe was miraculous). After that, though, Drake offered a dazzling array of vivid pianistic evocations of Müller’s poetry, playing with rhythmic freedom to suggest the wind-tossed weathervane in “Die Wetterfahne,” frantic searching in “Erstarrung,” and breathless, desperate running in “Rückblick.” Jagged middle-voice figures stuck out to depict the “wind playing with hearts in the house” in “Die Wetterfahne,” the ice cracking under the narrator’s footsteps in “Auf dem Flusse,” and an ugly cock-crow in “Frühlingstraum.” “Irrlicht” offered the kind of dark whimsy one would expect from a will-o’-the-wisp, “Täuschung” was delivered with a droll lilt, “Die Post” went off at a jaunty gallop, and the piano introduction of “Im Dorfe” even suggested a sleeping townsman with obstructive sleep apnea. The canonical voice in “Der Wegweiser” stuck out obnoxiously, suggesting a defiant loner “avoiding the paths that other wanderers tread, seeking out hidden ways through snow-bound rocky heights.” “Das Wirtshaus” and “Die Nebensonnen” had the ringing fifths of an organ playing a church hymn. And for “Der Leiermann,” Drake played it surprisingly straight, making the plaintive scraping of the organ-grinder all the more poignant.
Performances of Winterreise strike me as falling into two major camps. Many view this as an old man’s music, shaded more towards regret, despair, resignation, even the ultimate letting go (think of 1950’s Hans Hotter here or Peter Pears here). This was indeed among Schubert’s last creations (he worked on the proofs as he lay on his deathbed), but he was only 31 at the time, and the cycle has struck me as a young man’s cycle, shaded more towards sarcasm, anger, and defiance (listen to Peter Anders [here] or the young Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore here). Finley’s mostly restrained, quieter style gave this the stamp of an older man’s cycle. And on the strength of hearing the even greater range and detail in their Tanglewood recital, which they have been doing together for years, I look forward to hearing Finley and Drake’s take on the cycle grow even deeper, richer, and stranger as they journey deeper into winter.
Gerald Finley and Julius Drake have recorded Schubert’s Winterreise for Hyperion Records for release next month, and advance copies were available for sale at the concert (you can hear samples here) They repeat Winterreise in Baltimore on February 9, Philadelphia on February 11, and New York on Valentine’s Eve.