SCHUBERT Schwanengesang BRAHMS Vier Ernste Gesänge (Finley & Drake)
Gerald Finley is never an artist, one feels, to let himself be rushed, allowing his interpretations to mellow and mature in their own good time. It’s been five years since his superbly eloquent and refined Winterreise with Julius Drake (4/14) and his new recording of Schwanengesang – similarly eloquent and refined – is well worth the wait. Throw in the weighty coupling of Brahms’s own Lieder swansong and the result is a richly satisfying, moving album.
Finley straightforwardly presents the Schubert songs in the order in which the publisher Tobias Haslinger opportunistically threw them together nearly 190 years ago, and he and Drake fully embrace the opportunities of performing the songs in their lower, broodier keys.
If ‘Liebesbotschaft’ feels a little veiled at first, ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ – its tempos pushed to extremes – turns into a powerful, moving monodrama. ‘In der Ferne’ achieves terrific grandeur and pathos, and the bass-baritone finds further reserves of voice and drama for the remarkable Heine settings: ‘Der Atlas’, bolstered by fiercely etched playing from Drake, is chillingly vivid, as is an expertly built-up ‘Der Doppelgänger’.
Occasionally the beauty of Finley’s voice risks smoothing out the drama – you don’t get the same easy directness as with, for example, Thomas Quasthoff’s fine DG recording – but then he offers up a subtle interpretative touch or boost of tone (listen to the impressive swell on the final ‘nur du!’ of ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’) to keep you gripped. Drake imposes further coherence by holding many final chords longer than written, as if preventing an audience from breaking the spell; I was less sure about his slightly lumpy way with the accompaniment of ‘Ständchen’. But that’s one minuscule quibble in a very fine Schwanengesang indeed.
The Vier ernste Lieder are possibly even better: noble, refined, heartfelt, supremely moving and often beautiful in the extreme. There’s not the craggy nobility of Hotter, the soulfulness of Goerne or, once more, the directness of Quasthoff (whose coupling is the same), but total sincerity backed up by superb vocalism, matched at every turn by Drake. The pair capture the set’s shifts from stoicism and sternness to tenderness beautifully (their ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ meltingly done), in a deeply affecting performance. Highly recommended.