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A superb recital

Koerner Hall
05/09/2010 -  
Robert Schumann: Heine Settings
Maurice Ravel: Histoires Naturelles
Samuel Barber: Four Songs
Charles Ives: Four Songs

Gerald Finley (Bass-Baritone), Julius Drake (Piano)

G. Finley (© Sim Canetty-Clarke)

When writing about the Gerald Finley/Julius Drake recital at Koerner Hall, it’s hard to avoid a gush of superlatives. Not only was the singer in superb voice, both performers (at the end of a North American tour) have so thoroughly mastered the repertoire it seems to have been performed spontaneously.

The first half consisted of 11 settings by Robert Schumann of poems and ballads by Heinrich Heine, the earliest composed during his miracle year of 1840 (when Schumann composed 140 songs), and some from as late as 1852, the year of his final opus numbers. None of the numbers was from the famous, frequently-performed cycles. This gave a freshness to the program - not that there was any danger of staleness, given the singer’s intensely characterized performance of each piece treated as more a brief monodrama than a mere song.

Heine’s poetry is noted for its quick change of mood, typically with a lovely image turning deathly at the end. Schumann captured this in his compositions and both Finley and Drake captured this in their performances.

Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles started the second half. Not as dramatic or (mercifully) as angst-laden as the Schumann pieces, the singular playful mood of each piece was brought to the fore. Plus the singer’s clarity of enunciation was on show.

The four Samuel Barber songs (The Daisies, Solitary Hotel, Bessie Bobtail, Nocturne) made one wish for more of them. As with the rest of the program, the performers captured the atmosphere of each one of them.

The Charles Ives pieces again brought forth extreme variety mood and delivery. West London (to a poem by Matthew Arnold) winds itself up to a passage that conjures up American revival meetings. In the alley is both rueful and mock-rueful, telling of a brief infatuation that comes to grief. Charlie Rutledge seems a send-up of cornpone sentimentality, recounting the death of a cowboy whose horse falls on him - but in its final line turns sincere.

The encores took us even further into repertory with layered meanings, if with a good deal less subtlety than in the formal program. Since it was Mothers’ Day, and Gerald Finley’s mother was in the audience, he performed A boy’s best friend is his mother, a once popular song (by Henry Miller and Joseph P. Skelley) dating from 1883. I’m sure it had many achingly-sincere, tear-stained performances in music halls and parlours in its heyday. Mr. Finley gave an all-out performance, accompanied and undercut by the sly playing of Mr. Drake who inserted a bit of honky-tonk tremolo at its most bathetic moment.

This was a mere warmup, however, for The Desert, a Victorian song (perhaps “melodramatic scene” is a more apt description) by one Louis Emmanuel, to words by J. F. Smith. A first-person account of a man lost in the desert, it requires vehement (and Sincere - with a capital “S”) vocalism, not to mention a piano part that tries to outdo Franz Liszt at his purple best/worst. It will appear on a Hyperion recording soon, along with items of a similar nature. I’m sure it will provide guilty pleasure for years to come.

Gerald Finley is a Canadian (raised in Ottawa) who moved to England for vocal study and has based his career there. In the early 90s, the Canadian Opera Company featured him as Mozart’s Figaro and Sid in Albert Herring, but after that his rocketing career has kept him occupied in more fortunate locales. I recall a recital some years ago at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio. It was great to have him back and, needless to say, a return visit would be most welcome.

A note about the venue: this was the final concert in Koerner Hall’s opening season, and gave further proof of the success of the wonderful space. It is part of a new addition to the Royal Conservatory of Music called the Telus Centre, and it has just been won an award from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Next season’s eclectic schedule is disappointingly light in the vocal recital department - however, there are still possible dates left for an enterprising impresario to rent the hall.

Michael Johnson



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