Gerald Finley returned to the Wigmore Hall with another carefully balanced and exploratory programme. Supremely accompanied by Julius Drake, the two artists seemed perfectly attuned to each other and produced an exciting and rewarding evening.
A group of songs by Carl Loewe tied together by the multiple interpretive demands imposed by the narratives was a thrilling and demanding opening. Loewe was held in high regard by Richard Wagner who pronounced Loewe’s setting of “Erlkönig” to be superior to Schubert’s more famous version. While not wishing to be without either setting I would rate the chill factor in Loewe’s to be higher but prefer Schubert’s monumental accompaniment. However before we came to “Erlkönig” another story of an ill fated meeting with the spirit world opened the group. “Herr Oluf” tells of a knight who, on the way to his wedding, has the misfortune to attract the attention of the Erlking’s daughter. Though he resists her siren call she nevertheless freezes his heart with one touch. Already doomed Oluf makes his way back to his home and retires to bed. When his bride goes to wake him the following morning she finds him stone dead. Drake perfectly set the scene with an atmospheric introduction redolent of magic and mystery. One knows instinctively that this story will not have a happy conclusion. The song requires the singer to play three distinct characters as well as the neutral narrator and Finley ideally delineates the 3 protagonists without recourse to excess or ham. The contrast between the earthbound, dark tones of the unfortunate knight and the cooing, breathy tones of the fairy was remarkable. Still more striking was the chilling change of tone when the fairy condemns Oluf.
“Tom der Reimer”, set to a Scots ballad tells a very similar tale in a different setting. The scene is set at the edge of a brook and Loewe’s opening phrases perfectly conjure up the sparkling waters. The twist in this tale is that Tom is a willing victim and gladly agrees to serve the Elf Queen for seven years. Seven years appears to have been the standard period of enchantment in the 19th century! Loewe slyly leaves the distinct impression that the period of servitude will be a good deal more enjoyable than that of Wagner’s unfortunate Dutchman. In keeping with the Wagnerian connection there were several moments during the song that one longed to hear Finley turn his hand to Wolfram in Tannhäuser or even the titular Holländer. The reckless passion with which Finley’s Tom pledged his love for the Elven Queen was certainly Wagnerian in scale.
“Die wandeldnde Glocke” (The walking bell) differs from the other Loewe songs in the programme in that it essentially a narrated song without delineated lines for characters. However Finley artfully characterised the mother and naughty child and even the scary-comic animated bell itself while Drake’s evocation of the fleeing child was both hilarious and frightening. The cautionary tale is by Goethe but is strongly reminiscent of such child-scaring tomes as Struwwelpeter (a book, as I can attest, guaranteed to give nightmares to any impressionable youngster).
And so to “Erlkönig”. While the introduction is not the bravura pianistic display of Schubert it is certainly both highly charged and unsettling and, coupled with Finley’s jet black tone, fully evoked the storm lashed night. While his painting of the father and the child is similar to Schubert’s Loewe’s characterisation of the Erlking is revolutionary. Instead of Schubert’s seductive, wheedling will-o-the-wisp we are confronted with a calm, measured being, entirely sure of its prey, impossible to avoid or vanquish. From his first utterance one can have no doubt of the child’s fate. Finley was utterly superb in every respect and the penultimate verse containing the final words of King and child was overwhelming.
The final song “Edward” is a dramatic duet for Edward and his mother who, it transpires, has counselled her son to murder his father. Extraordinary in its intensity the song is compositionally decades ahead of its time and is, in many ways, redolent of the supercharged romantic sensationalism that characterises early twentieth century composition. Finally forced to admit his crime Edward turns on his mother with a spine chilling curse which would not be out of place in Elektra or Salome. The song makes huge vocal and dramatic demands on the performers and Finley, despite very slight hints of strain, was triumphant.
After the huge demands and scale of the Loewe songs it was a canny choice to open a Schubert group with his monumental “Der Atlas”. The sense of vast events and epic emotions dovetailed perfectly with the previous group and ensured there was no sense of anticlimax. Finley ably articulated the fury of the trapped Atlas. “Ihr Bild”, with its hymn like opening, came as a complete contrast and Finley brought a hushed beauty to “Um ihre Lippen sich Ein Lächeln wunderbar” (A wonderful smile played about her lips) which starkly contrasted with the drained despair of the final verse. The failure of the piano coda to finally resolve seemed particularly significant.
“Der Fischermädchen” provided a welcome respite from so much angst and Finley brought a beautiful mezza voce to the final verse. But even in this apparently light balata the accompaniment hints at dark depths. “Die Stadt” returned us to Heine’s customary world weary gloom with a boatman surely evoking Charon’s boat to the underworld. “Am Meer” containing the line “Since that time my body wastes” must have echoed the dying Schubert’s own thoughts and Finley gave full vent to the narrator’s despair.
“Der Doppelgänger” is a popular figure in supernatural tales evoking the evil sub-ego that haunts us all. The idea that there is an alternate path or even world inhabited by another “us” remains an obsession for authors such as Pullman even today. The twist in Heine’s version is that the double is in fact the real being – The version of the narrator visible to the people around him as opposed to the fiction that the narrator has built of himself. Finley used the full palette of his voice to convey the horror of the final revelation.
After so much Germanic Sturm und Drang it was a relief to turn to the Histoires naturelles of Maurice Ravel. From the opening bars we are immediately transported to an entirely different sound-world and Finley’s delivery and deportment altered subtly to mark the change of location and style. The deadpan dry sense of humour brilliantly matched Ravel’s lancing of the arrogant alpha male in “Le paon”. As each progressing display of male plumage utterly fails to impinge on his bored mates the unshakeable confidence of the peacock becomes more comical but ultimately rather touching.
Ravel’s pianistic painting of locale is often breathtaking as he suggests the shimmering haze of a summer afternoon in “Le grillon” (the cricket) or the swan shattered calm of the river in “Le cygne”.
Finley and Drake beautifully captured the sense of wonder in “Le martin-pêcheur” as time seems to stand still while the kingfisher rests on the narrator’s fishing rod. In complete contrast the raucous “La pintade”, describing a particularly antisocial guinea fowl, brought the group to a rousing close.
The final group was Benjamin Britten’s deceptively simple settings of folksongs made while in the US during the war. The highlights were a poised “I wonder as I wander” with a glorious hushed final verse and the rollicking tall tale of “The crocodile”. Finley had a slight memory lapse in the final verse but recovered quickly after a prompt from Drake.
Finley gave two encores. The “Chanson a boire” (Don Quichotte A Dulcinée) amusingly traced progressive inebriation but the peach was Louis Emanuel’s “The Desert”. I suspect that the song was originally intended to be taken somewhat more seriously but Finley’s hilarious evocation of the stranded hero, encircling vulture and final rescue was utterly irresistible.
A superb evening and one looks forward with eager anticipation to his Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne.