The best of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake’s recital was heard at the beginning and the very end. Mozart’s Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt (You who give honour to the Creator of the Infinite Universe) is not exactly easy material with which to open a Liederabend, despite its exhortation to ‘Hört, Menschen’ and its grandiose, elevated sentiments are probably the reason for its fairly infrequent outings on the stage. However, sung and played as it was here, with the required blend of assurance in the didactic sections and eloquent, flowing legato in the more lyrical passages, particularly ‘Liebt mich in meinen Werken’ (Love me in my works) it felt as though we were hearing one of the composer’s greatest songs.
After the planned recital came two encores which surpassed much of what had preceded them. Charles Ives’ ‘Memories’ was superbly sung, both sly comedy and pathos made clear without undue sentimentality, and Liszt’s ‘Go not, happy day’ showed that Finley and Drake have few equals in this music, which is ideally suited to Finley’s magisterial tones. The third volume in their Liszt series closes with this song.
The Beethoven group which followed the Mozart ‘cantata’ was a logical step in a finely planned progression, with Drake’s playing in ‘Selbstgespräch’ full of lightness and wit, complementing characterful and pointed singing. Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge is one of those works which some feel they should like, but find difficult to warm to, not only because of the sombre nature of the texts but because they often bring out a sense of monotony in recorded performance. ‘O Tod’ showed Finley’s crisp diction and unfailing legato line at their best, and his angry rather than resigned interpretation of ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ was characteristic of the performance of the whole. Both pianist and singer present the work with the most exalted of musical values, although there were a few moments when one might wish for more nuance with the words.
Ned Rorem averred that he had “…never set a bad poem” but if you don’t care for Walt Whitman you might disagree. Written in memory of those who died in Vietnam, Rorem’s powerful, declamatory work sets “freely excised” scenes from Whitman’s ‘Specimen Days’ and it’s a work which may be compared to some of Schubert’s songs in that it elevates the poem beyond its quality by virtue of the power of its musical setting. Finley sang it with an exact balance between the rage of ‘A night battle’ and the poignancy of ‘Specimen Case.’ This was preceded by a Vaughan Williams group of which ‘Nocturne’ was the high point, and followed by a set of Charles Ives songs, the beautiful ‘Tom sails away’ an ideal vehicle for Finley’s robust yet tender singing. The recital ended with ‘Charlie Rutlage’ about which it’s fair to say that very few other singers can match Finley’s accent as well as his swagger, and very few other pianists can make even playing with fists sound so musical.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.