Gerald Finley: Winterreise

youthfulness of the protagonist may be best evoked by the high plangent quality
of the tenor voice; moreover, Schubert was himself a tenor and it was in this
register that the songs were first performed by the composer in an intimate
salon before an audience of his closest friends. His choice of keys might also
suggest that it was the tenorial range and timbre that he had in mind.

However, shortly before he died, Schubert’s close friend, the Austrian
baritone Johann Michael Vogl, who was then in his fifties, performed the cycle
for the composer. The expressive variety and range of the baritone voice can
offer fresh insights and communicate powerfully; it is now as common for
Winterreise to be performed by baritones, and on this occasion
Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley added his name to the list of those
seeking to make this cycle his own.

Accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, Finley’s reading is one which
combines poise and eloquence with bleakness and resignation. Solemn, restrained
and dignified, there are none of the flourishes and angst-ridden gestures which
have sometimes charged other interpretations; but, the protagonist’s
suffering is never in doubt — indeed, the darkness of the register adding to
the air of solemn woe.

The performers took a little time to settle into the dramatic and emotional
setting of Wilhelm M¸ller’s poem. The clarity which marked Drake’s gentle
introductory chords and ornaments in ‘Gute Nachte’ (Good night) was
characteristic of the way the accompaniment gestures were meticulously
‘picked out’ throughout the cycle, expressive details and embellishments
enriching the narrative. But, despite the contrasts between Finley’s veiled
pianissimo suggesting the delicately shifting moonlight shadows which
keep the traveller company and the angry explosion of frustration at the start
of the third stanza, the song felt a little ‘four-square’, the piano’s
onward tread relentless, the only rhythmic rubato the slight pause
before the change to the major mode for the last stanza. Similarly, while
Finley’s articulation of the German was exemplary, in these opening songs at
times the texts were almost a little too clearly enunciated, lacking a
conversational ease and naturalness.

‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The weather-vane) had more assertive energy,
climaxing in the angry repetitions ‘Was fragen sie nach meinen Schmerzen?’
(What is my torment to them?) and the accumulating haste of the final line.
After this outburst, the piano’s dry staccato crotchets at the start of
‘Gefrorne Tr‰nen’ (Frozen Tears) were disturbingly cool, the sparse
texture and low register adding to the sense a heart chilled and numb.
Finley’s impassioned timbre in the final stanza hinted at the fierce heat
encased within the outer shell, but the piano’s parched closing motifs
suggested both tentative steps upon the ice without and the heart’s struggle
to escape the numbness.

This battle with deadening dejection continued in ‘Erstarrung’
(Numbness), where Drake’s agitated, turbulent accompaniment contrasted with
the intense focus of the vocal line: the repeated line ‘Mit meinen heiflen
Tr‰nen’(with my hot tears) was particularly unsettling.

By the time we reached ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree), pianist and
singer were into their stride. The rhetoric of the piano introduction
established a narrative air, and Finley’s beautiful melodic lines and
excellent diction made for exquisite story-telling. At times during the recital
I found the pace a little too slow, overly grave and ponderous; but here the
forward momentum and occasionally foreboding tone created a sense of driving
inevitability. The nuances at the opening of ‘Wasserflut’ (Waterfall) —
the slight delays in Drake’s introduction, the melancholy of the falling
octaves which end the vocal lines and point the rhymes, and the deflections and
shifts in the harmony — were wonderfully expressive. Finley skilfully
controlled his vocal power to convey concentrated yearning and anguish.

In ‘Auf dem Flusse’ the juxtaposition of the Finley’s dark low voice
and the distinctly articulated repeated quavers and triplets of Drake’s
accompaniment created a thrilling tension which erupted in the final stanza,
the baritonal forceful resonance revealing the protagonist’s inner schisms:
‘Mein Herz, in diesem Bache/ Erkennst du nun dein Bild?’ (My heart, do you
now see your own likeness in this stream?) The volatile surges of
‘R¸ckblick’ and the violent pounding in the bass developed this mood of
conflict and confrontation. Here, Finley found great variety of colour, the
voice unfailingly mellifluous and the final line infused with sweet

After a short pause, the magical lightness of Finley’s higher register and
the mischievous rubatos and accelerations in Drake’s accompaniment
were as enchanting as the will-o’-the-wisp of which Finley sang. As in so
many of the songs, the performers demonstrated an intelligent grasp not just of
the overall structure of the cycle, but also of the miniature architecture of
each individual song. Here, the repetition of the final line reinforced the
protagonist’s despondancy: ‘Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab’ (every sorrow
will find its grave).

The unaffected ease of ‘Fruhlingstraum’ (Dream of spring) brought
freshness, and suggested genuinely happier times. The singer’s gifts as a
communicator came to the fore: first we had the startling drama of the crowing
cock which awakens the dreamer, the piano’s stridency depicting the shriek of
the ravens; then the trance-like reticence of the dreamy reflections of the
half-awake protagonist as he gazes at the patterns on the window panes and
slips into reverie. ‘Einsamkeit’ reached expressive heights, the
repetitions of the final line laden with pain. Drake set a crisp pace in ‘Die
Post’ (The mail-coach); the subtle pause before the shift to the minor key
was wonderful.

A slow tempo was adopted for ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head). This,
together with the eloquence of the falling melodic phrases and dry
accompaniment chords, established an aptly despairing mood — a real sense of
inner despair and horror; but, I did feel that some of the tempi in
the cycle’s closing songs were a little on the ponderous side, and the long
pause that Finley, understandably, took before ‘Im Dorfe’ (In the village),
regrettably halted the dramatic and emotional impetus. ‘Die Kr‰he’ (The
crow) was more abandoned and the piano’s fragmented opening in ‘Letze
Hoffnung’ (Last hope) was fittingly unsettling. This approach — the
accompaniment ‘niggling’ at the singer in an understated but disquieting
manner — continued in ‘Im Dorfe’, the trilling motifs indicating the
cruel disillusionment that the slumbers will experience when daylight returns
and reality inevitably quashes their dreams. Similarly, Drake’s skipping
compound rhythms in ‘T‰uschung’ (Delusion) seemed to mock the singer as he
followed the dancing, ‘friendly’ light.

The bass line of the piano introduction to ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The
signpost) possessed a gentle mournfulness which was extended by the quiet
modulation to the major mode in the second stanza, the tender beauty of
Finley’s pianissimo, the deadening evenness of the monotone
repetitions of the last line — ‘Die nock Keiner ging zur¸ck’ (from which
no man has ever returned) — and by the wearying rallentando of the
piano’s closing cadence.

‘Das Wirthaus’ was similarly drained of forward propulsion, although the
rising intensity and focus of the close anticipated the impetuousness of
‘Mut!’ (Courage!). I thought the decision to run straight on into ‘Die
Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns) was a misjudgement. It is just at that point in
the cycle where the re-ordering of M¸ller’s original sequence has such a
striking effect: the optimism of ‘Mut!’ at this point of the cycle is
almost a bizarre parody, even surreal, and, following this breathless
impulsiveness, the shock of the return to the dark resonances of ‘Die
Nebelsonnen’ is enhanced by a moment of dazed silence, however brief.

The last song, ‘Die Leiermann’ (The organ-grinder) was a superb study in
weariness and dejection, but ultimately not in hopelessness, the final lines
pressing forward, the wayfarer not yet defeated.

Finley did not so much embody the protagonist, experiencing and
depicting his suffering in the present; rather, he seemed an elder man
re-living a journey made in the impetuousness of youth. There was a sense of
wearily and painfully returning to past experiences; experiences which have
been revisited in memory many times before, so that the twists and turns of the
emotional journey are etched in the singer’s conscience and body,
unavoidable, inerasable.

Claire Seymour

Gerald Finley and Julius Drake will release a new recording
of Winterreise (Hyperion) in March 2014.

image_description=Gerald Finley [Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke]
product_title=Gerald Finley: Winterreise
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Gerald Finley [Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke]