Composers: Schubert, Brahms
Compositions: Schwanengesang, Vier Ernste Gesänge
Performers: Gerald Finley b-bar, Julius Drake p
Catalogue Number: Hyperion CDA68288

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley never fails to amaze the listener with his versatility, whether it’s in his signature role as Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ Dr Atomic or Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, or just as one of our finest lieder exponents.

And his long partnership with British pianist Julius Drake yields another landmark recording with this latest release for Hyperion which neatly pairs Schubert’s Schwanengesang with Brahms’ own swansong, Vier ernste Gesänge.

Unlike Die schone Müllerin and Winterreise, both by the same poet and with a narrative thread, Schwanengesang is not strictly a song cycle, consisting of 14 settings of works by three poets published a few months after Schubert’s death to cash in on the popularity of the other cycles.

The playing order is therefore less defined, allowing the performer to mix and match the settings of Ludwig Rellstab (seven songs); Heinrich Heine (six) and the add-on Johann Gabriel Seidl (one song, Die Taubenpost, possibly Schubert’s last).

Austrian baritone Florian Boesch’s recording raised a few eyebrows when he dropped Die Taubenpost and divided the other two sets, inserting five song settings of Goethe. Finley chooses the conventional order and it’s interesting to compare his approach with two other superb accounts, both with Malcolm Martineau accompanying, by Boesch (2014) and a young Bryn Terfel (1991).

Take for example In der Ferne. The broken-hearted lover far away from home in Terfel’s hands is operatic and over the top, while Boesch exploits the emotional range with more subtlety, aided by Martineau’s painterly touch. Finley and Drake, on the other hand, bring a calmer, more sinister feel while putting more space around the lines and their relentlessly descending rhyming meter.

Finley’s full operatic range is on display in the first of the weightier Heine songs, Der Atlas, and in this set we are in bleak Winterreise territory with Ihr Bild and Der Doppelgänger and its terrifying climax when the narrator realises he is looking at himself, followed by its eerie fade in the final line.

Brahms’ four “serious” songs, rather than “sacred”, were written at the end of his life when the atheistic old man turned to the verses of Ecclesiastes and Corinthians for comfort and reflection on life. They are lovely autumnal works and Finley and Drake do them enormous justice.

At 59 the baritone is at the height of his powers. What’s next? Die Schöne Müllerin, perhaps?

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