Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Gerald Finley @ Wigmore Hall, London

18 October 2007

Gerald Finley is one of the few baritones before the public today with whom it’s virtually impossible to find fault.

And if you think that’s going to change here, then you’re sorely mistaken: Finley’s recital at the Wigmore Hall was exemplary in every way.

The Canadian baritone will be 48 in January, and is at the peak of his considerable powers, as he showed in his generous recital devoted to Russian and American song.

Whether on the operatic stage, or on the concert platform, he never fails to give his all. In the last few years his voice has taken on a gorgeous chestnut-brown quality, which he uses with faultless musicianship in everything he sings. Very few non-Slavic baritones have the right sound for plunging the emotional depths that are omnipresent in Russian song, but Finley is one of them.

The first half of the evening was devoted to a selection of songs by Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky’s emotionally gut-wrenching Songs and Dances of Death. The Tchaikovsky deals with unrequited love in its various forms, and here Finley found the perfect balance between the priapic swagger of Don Juan’s Serenade, where his climactic top notes shook the rafters, and the introspection of It was in the early spring where he provided a masterclass in how to spin legato phrase after legato phrase, supported by the merest thread of tone.

To say that Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death are bleak would be an understatement. The first song in the cycle is entitled Lullaby, but from the almost atonal, unison introduction the listener is automatically drawn into a sound world of foreboding, brilliantly and evocatively portrayed by Julius Drake. Here Finley had to take on two roles (that of Death and a baby’s mother) and the manner in which he bleached his tone as he sang the sinister utterings of Death, yet lightened it almost within the same phrase to portray the mother’s growing desperation for Death not to take her child away from her chilled the blood.

Similarly he made each of the ensuing four songs mini-operas in their own right; each having their own sound world and he rounded off the Cycle with an impassioned rendition of The Field Marshal which deals unsparingly with the horrors of war. After the intensity of the first half, the seven Ives’ songs came as a welcome antidote, with Finley particularly reveling in the humour of The Side Show, the melancholy of The greatest man and the sheer silliness of 1, 2, 3. But the light mood was short lived, as Finley picked up the war theme from the first half and delivered a quite shattering performance of Ned Rorem’s War Scenes. Written in the late 60s, at the time of the Vietnam War, Rorem sets five segments of Walt Whitman’s diary of the Civil War. Written in prose, much of the vocal line is declaimed speech, but this added to the immediacy of the text, with Finley rising to the considerable challenges Rorem asks of him, giving a quite monumental performance of what is a remarkable set of songs.

Finley chose to conclude this wonderfully varied and unsparingly sung recital with Samuel Barber’s Three songs Op.10 (set to texts by James Joyce) which provided a wonderful foil to what had gone before, and with bags of tone in reserve, Finley’s vocalism here was given free reign, with the climatic cries of My love, why have you left me alone?’, pinning the audience to the back of their seats.

Finley’s total mastery of the art of singing and Drake’s phenomenally versatile accompanying made this an evening that will live long in the memory. And the best news is that it was recorded for the Wigmore’s own CD label – and will be essential listening for anyone who believes in the glorious art of song.

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