Gerald Finley, Wigmore Hall

Schubert’s seven settings of Ludwig Rellstab, which form the first part of
Schwanengesang, frequently evoke the murmuring brooks and whispering
breezes so common to the Romantic landscape, and pianist Julius Drake can
deftly paint an aural soundscape, the rippling, rustling motifs always even,
clear and subtly supporting the voice. But, what was noticeable through this
first sequence of songs was how often Drake was the driving force shaping the
songs’ narrative and architecture. The baritonal register at times shifted
the accompaniment into deep realms, and as the dark bass lines articulated the
progressions, at times poised, then pacing forwards with composure, it was as
if the pianist’s left hand was sketching the underlying structure while the
figurations and melodic interjections and dialogue above coloured in the
details of these vignettes of unrequited love.

Above this sure foundation, Finley was relaxed and eloquent in
‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) and ‘Fr¸hlings-Sehnsucht’ (Spring
longing). He produced intensity within the quietness of the former, rising
gently to convey the poet-speaker’s affectionate appeal to the brook to
‘Rausche sie murmelnd/ in s¸fle Ruh’ (Murmur her into sweet repose).
Finley was not afraid to delay and emphasise the anxious questions —
‘Wohin?’, ‘Warum?’ — which close each stanza of
‘Fr¸hlings-Sehnsucht’, while Drake ensured that the ceaseless breeze swept
up each hesitant pause into the subsequent verse. The minor tonality of the
final verse and the singer’s more agitated, earnest tone communicated the
poet-speaker’s growing unrest, and Finley’s closing avowal that ‘Nur
Du!’ (only you!) could set free the yearning in his heart was earnest and

‘St‰ndchen’ (Serenade) was warm and hopeful, although the telling
alternations of major and minor were an affecting reminder that the courting
singer is denied the vision of his beloved he desires, and Finley’s
concluding phrase, ‘Komm’, begl¸cke mich!’ (Come, make me happy!),
suggested his fear that she may not even hear his song. Fear grew to anguish in
‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place), Drake’s pounding triplet-quavers, with
their chromatic harmonic twists, confirming the baritone’s assertion that his
grief remains, ever-unchanging. The emphatic diminished chords which open
‘Kriegers Ahnunhg’ (Warrior’s foreboding) were similarly unsettling, and
the separate verses of the ballad progressively intensified the soldier’s
turmoil, from his dreamy recollections to turbulent intimations of the battle
ahead. Finley soared smoothly in the more expansive, arcing lines of the
ultimate stanza, and the open tone of his farewell, ‘Gute Nacht!’, resting
on the dominant above the final cadence, captured the poignant irony of the
tender address.

The highlight of the Rellstab sequence was ‘In der Ferne’ (Far away),
Drake’s theatrical prelude and inter-verse commentaries bursting forth, then
retreating, creating a sense of high drama. The baritone’s wonderful
pianissimo at the bottom of the voice, at the close of the first verse,
unnervingly evoked the fleeing fugitive, forsaking family and friends; a shift
to the major key, and the firm rocking octaves in the piano left hand,
suggested faith that the lover’s message would be carried by the wind home to
his beloved, but Drake’s furious ending pitilessly shattered hope, the minor
cadence a sustained, brutal cry of denial. The departure in ‘Abschied’
(Farewell) is less melancholic, and Finley brought a warm lyricism to the
repeated valedictions, ‘Ade’, while using the minor inflections in the
closing verse to convey regret.

The driving excitement of the opening of ‘Der Atlas’ — the first of
the Heine settings, which followed the interval — signalled a new tension and
economy of expression, the poet’s sparser lines inspiring Schubert, and the
performers, to greater intensity. Finley’s power, control and range were much
in evidence, in the bitter blast of sorrow that wounds the poet-speaker’s
heart and in the hushed pain of his wretchedness. Similarly, while the
restrained unison which commences ‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was bleak and
mournful, there was a gentle release as the beloved’s smile was recollected,
before Drake mercilessly drove home the poet-speaker’s realisation of loss in
the postlude.

‘Das Fischerm‰dchen’ provided some emotional steadiness, before ‘Die
Stadt’ (The town) rang with tremulous intensity. Drake’s eerie octave
oscillations and upper register interjections created a strange, hallucinatory
air which lent a dark hue to the poet-speaker’s view of his home, an unease
which burst forth in urgent despair, Finley moving from stark restraint to
passionate despair as the sun rose to illuminate ‘jene Stelle,/ Wo ich das
Liebste verlor’ (the place where I lost what I loved most). I was impressed
not only by the performers’ alertness to Schubert’s pictorial details, but
also by their sure sense of scale and structure in ‘Am Meer’ (By the sea),
from the chorale-like piano melody which embraced the singer’s voice at
start, suggesting the gleaming surface of the sea, to the brooding chords of
the conclusion.

Adopting a deathly tempo for ‘Der Doppelg‰nger’ (The wraith), Drake’s
Hadean, circling ground bass, and the repetitive returns of Finley’s
declamatory melody possessed the sombre ring of mortality, the baritone imbuing
anguish with beauty. The shift to the seemingly lighter-spirited ‘Die
Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post) — the last song that Schubert composed — can be
difficult to accomplish, but the drifting quality of the question which closes
the preceding song, ineffably released some of the tension, while there was no
lessening of the sensitivity to textural and harmonic nuance thereby making
‘Die Taubenpost’ a fitting conclusion to an ongoing narrative of yearning:
‘Sie heiflt — die Sehnsucht!/ Kennt ihr sie?’ (her name is — Longing!
Do you know her?)

Separating Schubert’s two poets was a new work by Finnish composer
Einojuhani Rautavaara, which sets Edward FitzGerald’s English translation of
Rub·iy·t by Omar Khayy·m. Rautavaara’s characteristic
sound-worlds — by turns mystical, meditative, rhapsodic — are a fitting
complement to Khayy·m’s lyric quatrains which, rather than delineating a
narrative, present the profound feelings and philosophical reflections of the
poet on subjects such as religion, love and death.

Originally composed for baritone and orchestra, the composer has prepared a
version for piano. He explains in a programme note that each song continues
into the subsequent instrumental interlude, which prepares the song to follow
(although the songs can be performed separately). In ‘Awake!’, Drake’s
rippling harp-like cascades, intimating their orchestral origins, presented a
rich Romantic vista of an emergent dawn. The baritone’s broad phrases soared
powerfully, the sumptuous dark tone glowing, the text clearly articulated and

‘And Lately’ was preceded by a thoughtful stillness, the close
middle-range lines gradually expanding, exploring harmonic shades and melodic
pathways, the hands ever more distant. The Britten-esque vitality of the text
setting in this song — Finley’s diction was superb throughout — brought
energy and interest. ‘Here with a loaf of bread’ seemed less successful in
terms of its rhythmic engagement with the text; and, this brought to attention
a recurring ‘weakness’, namely the repetitive nature of the melodic
development — perpetually roving stepwise motion, in uniform rhythmic values,
which, despite Finley’s sensitivity and lovely sustained, even voice, failed
to make a lasting impression. ‘We are no other than a moving row’
introduced more dynamic conflict, in the contrast between the voice’s
meandering and the piano’s repeating notes, and the performers built
passionately to the song’s climax before a subdued close, underpinned by
wavering piano gestures.

The improvisatory piano interlude preceding ‘Oh, make haste!’ gave way
to a grander, swinging rhythmic momentum in the opening stanza, reminiscent of
the muscularity of some of Vaughan Williams’ songs, before the rippling runs
of the opening returned, creating a fervent intensity for the work’s
conclusion: ‘The Stars are setting and the Caravan/ Starts for the Dawn of
Nothing — Oh, make haste!’

Rautavaara has said that he advises his composition students, “Don’t ever
try to force your music, because music is very wise and it has its own will. It
knows where to go. You have to listen to it, to listen your material which you
have chosen. Start with that and then the material will dictate where it wants
to go. It’s much wiser than you are. Don’t push yourself, but try to find out
what the music wants to become.” (Interview with Bruce Duffie,

Certainly, this rhapsodic sequence had a roaming, sinuous quality, as if the
melodies were searching for their form. Perhaps this is in keeping with the
spirit of Khayy·m’s philosophy for a rub·iy·t is a collection of
quatrains which may be re-arranged depending upon one’s interpretation of the
poet’s meaning. The result is an appealing work — with diverse timbral and
harmonic colours and a vocal melody which soars ardently — but one which is
ultimately not very memorable. But, it was, as was this entire programme,
performed with generous commitment by Finley and Drake.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 31st May 2014.

Schubert: Schwanengesang; Einojuhani Rautavaara:
Rub·iy·t (world premiËre).

image_description=Einojuhani Rautavaara [Photo by Heikki Tuuli]
product_title=Gerald Finley, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Einojuhani Rautavaara [Photo by Heikki Tuuli]