Baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake met fervent applause at the close of Friday night's long-awaited Celebrity Series recital. On the program was Schubert's celebrated masterpiece, Winterreise: a cycle of 24 songs for voice and piano.
On a surface level, the cycle is a story of bitter heartbreak, but embedded in this tale are darker inflections, some subtle, and others very overt. Finley began the mellow "Gute Nacht" with a firmly set scowl, flagging that this would probably not be simply a pretty Liederabend, but a more somber occasion.
It was clear that Finley's interpretation of Wilhelm Müller's text was deep and reverent and that as he turned each phrase, he was acutely aware of its poetic value. Physically, he took on the narrator with conviction; whether engaging in direct conversation or wrestling with inner turmoil, Finley made the narrator's plight both seen and heard. A piercing look or slackening of stance spoke volumes in the intimate space of NEC's Jordan Hall. The space also made it possible for Finley to explore the daringly soft dynamics that would be the crowning glory of Winterreise's haunting and exposed final song, "Der Leierman." As the text moved him, Finley seamlessly melted his warm, encompassing tone into a delicate piano or punctuated a phrase with stark dynamic contrasts.
With this expansive range of dynamic possibilities came even broader possibilities for poetic expression. This was doubly true for Julius Drake on piano. Schubert's Winterreise is more of a duet between voice and piano than songs for voice accompanied by piano and Drake's skillful evocation of the text left no doubt of this claim. Beyond creating a literal soundscape, such as the fluttering leaves in "Der Lindenbaum" or the crowing roosters in "Frühlingstraum," Drake provided, for example, the rumbling exasperation in "Erstarrung" that the voice alone could not achieve and the dreamlike tempo and articulations which allowed "Frühlingstraum" to blend more fluidly into the cycle.
As the cycle became still more grim, Täuschung (Delusions) was a glowing musical moment in which Finley and Drake reveled in the melodious contours; but the performers quickly dispersed the delusion with a very grounded and raw rendition of "Der Wegweiser." As the song progressed they steadily added weight and depth until the song's final stanza, where the pressure culminated in the cycle's harrowing climax.
It is no wonder that the pair are long-time collaborators, as, dramatically and dynamically, they surged and ebbed in unison, and, when appropriate, each knew when to let the other take the foreground. Sometimes letting the natural pull of Schubert's harmonies speak for themselves and at others following their interpretive intuition, Finley and Drake faceted the cycle with an ever-changing emotional landscape that could be both wrenchingly genuine or bitterly sarcastic.
Their innovation made the occasional lapses in intensity few and forgivable; however, as a whole, the journey possessed unity and tension seldom achieved so aptly in this difficult cycle.
The night flew by all too quickly and after this moving rendition, Finley's return to the Celebrity Series of Boston will certainly be eagerly awaited.