Julius Drake and Gerald Finley presented a selection of song at Wigmore Hall designed to reveal the dark side of Finley’s expressive and dramatic gifts.
The poetry of Goethe was highlighted at the beginning with eleven Schubert settings. ‘Meeres Stille’ was a bold starting point. This eerie evocation of watery stillness barely moves tonally. Drake’s gentlest arpeggios supported Finley’s haunting phrasing to convey the ominous physical and emotional dead-calm of the sea. The contrast with the intensely joyous ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ was palpable: a fabulous coup de théâtre. Finley’s vocal style was almost operatic here, fantastically communicative, conveying the thundering of his ecstatic heart echoed in the piano’s galloping rhythms. The earlier version of ‘An den Mond’ followed, plangent contemplation of the moon, friendship and love leading seamlessly into ‘Wandrers Nachtlied II’, Goethe’s greatest meditation on Nature. Phrasing and breath-control were faultless; the mood skilfully conjured in broad theatrical sweeps. Detail and consonants were slightly lacking, but who could resist the barnstorming interpretation of ‘Erlkönig’, which closed the first half, Finley at his bravura best, unbearable drama of the fight for the life and soul of a child between the forces of good and evil.
After the interval, a selection of Rachmaninov’s songs favoured by Chaliapin plumbed vocal range and emotional depths. ‘On the death of a siskin’, a delicate lament on love and song, was given added charm by Drake’s immaculately characterised postlude. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Animal Songs followed. ‘The Singing Cat’, a setting of Stevie Smith, was exquisitely delivered with humour and precision. ‘Mourned’ (Thomas Hardy) was spellbinding, full of pathos, and ‘Last Words’ (Walt Whitman) is a jazzy hymn in praise of animals. The Turnage married beautifully with a selection of Britten settings, culminating in the extraordinary dramatic narrative of ‘The Crocodile’ in sea-shanty style.
The encore, ‘The Desert’ by Louis Emanuel, took us to Victorian melodrama, sending every theatrical nerve tingling. Finley and Drake squeezed every drop of emotion from this disaster-scenario ballad all the way to the rollicking rescue conclusion: consummate story-telling.