Franz Schubert, Die Winterreise: Gerald Finley, baritone; Julius Drake, piano, Playhouse, January 26, 2014.


Gerald Finley

Gerald Finley

Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise (‘Winter’s Journey’) represents one of the peaks of all German song.  Many have tried to conquer its vulnerable emotional core, but great performances remain elusive.  The reigning ‘king’ of this unsettling set of 24 songs, is perhaps still legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose perceptive interpretations have stood the test of time for a half-century.  There have been others later on: tenors Peter Schreier and Sir Peter Pears have offered particularly involving accounts and I remember a very special performance at Wigmore Hall with Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel that had a stunning stoic concentration.  In all these interpretations, the songs are seemingly taken one by one on their own merits, letting their progressively bitter subject matter cumulatively carry the cycle to its tragic end.  Since Ian Bostridge performed Winterreise in the 1990’s, however, there has been a new perspective offered: that the cycle should be, from the outset, a study of an increasingly-deteriorating state of mind, and that all the extremes of emotional vulnerability and premonitions of ultimate withering-away should be reflected, even in the earlier songs.  The question for critics is:  Does this new approach reveal deeper insights into the songs, or does it in some ways paint an unwanted dramatic veneer over all of them, distorting the work’s force and meaning?

Gerald Finley’s eagerly-anticipated Winterreise clearly fits with the ‘new’ tradition and this was its first North American performance.  While we have seen this immensely-talented baritone in German lieder before, let me say right away that the degree of vocal command and control, and intellectual awareness, witnessed here supersedes anything previously.  The voice of course is lovely but it is its integration from top to bottom, from powerful proclamations to vulnerable half-tones, that is now really disarming.  In this performance, I think that all of these vocal resources were used with great judgment. Even if the singer and his wonderful accompanist, Julius Drake, could be charged with over-dramatization at points, the rock-solid consistency and intellectual depth of this Winterreise simply took us along inexorably to the end, making it very special indeed. 

Julius Drake

Julius Drake

The trudge through the icy, frozen snow in ‘Good Night’ began with determination (almost with nobility), beautifully articulated.  Whereas most interpretations gradually become more fragile as the song progresses, here we moved strongly forward to just about the end with a dramatically pronounced yielding in the last stanza.  We were off!  The brusque piano statements of ‘The Weather-vane’ made this song very vivid, anger and bitterness abounding, Finley almost shouting at some points.  ‘Frozen Tears’ then moved in the other direction, faltering and with an underlying macabre feeling.  Drake’s storminess and drama strongly drove Numbness, before we finally got a respite in ‘The Linden Tree’.  At a slow tempo, Finley coaxed beautiful phrasing from the outset and, after a stormy moment in the middle, returned to a lovely tender expression.

The next three songs introduced much more somber feelings, resignation and almost a feeling of otherworldliness. These were juxtaposed again with dramatic, double forte outbursts where the singer moved from a pale falsetto to an almost operatic posture. Some moments also seemed like personal soliloquy, others more like a dialogue. ‘The Dream of Spring” featured a beautiful cantabile opening broken by dramatic surges, then a peaceful moment, upset again, moving to a very slow and beautiful close.  Throughout, one could only be amazed at how fluently Gerald Finley captured all these emotional changes and shadings and how closely singer and accompanist worked together.   So skillfully was this done that there was no feeling that the dramatic extremes ever broke or burdened the line of the music.

The reason for this continuity and concentration is that both singer and pianist revealed quickly a model of the emotional state they were attempting to portray, and followed it with absolutely consistency.  The best way I can describe this is by thinking metaphorically of a tightrope walker, who is fine and determined if he always looks straight-ahead, but at the same time always feels impelled to look down to register what he is actually doing.  Looking down is of course tremulous, creating fear, the premonition of death, as well as an anger that he ever got on the tightrope in the first place.  The sudden alternation between these two states is what is studied in the first 12 songs.  That is why the exposition is invariably jagged rather than smooth. The remaining 12 songs introduce the additional recognition that the tightrope will break anyway, so that there is no hope no matter where one looks.

In these last songs, the famous ‘Mail Coach’ was wonderfully done with the pianist stressing extreme staccato articulation.  By the next song, however, our traveler is seemingly suspended in disbelief that all this is happening to him.  ‘The Crow’ has some wonderful singing but is gruelingly macabre, and in “Last Hope’ the piano mimics someone staggering or falling over, almost crazy.  ‘In the Village’ introduces an ominous, withdrawn world where apparitions appear.  ‘The Signpost’ was beautifully paced, with subtle soft tones from the singer, very quickly ending into nothing.  And in ‘The Inn’, we hear an almost prayer-like anthem conjured up in the piano.  After the hollow ‘Courage’, we settle into the end.  In ‘Phantom Suns’, Finley’s soft and derisive tones are set up against emphatic repeated hammer-blows from the piano.  And in the final ‘Organ Grinder’, depicting a barefoot musician in the ice who no one looks at or listens too, we find only drained and exhausted half-tones from the singer, the few last breaths that can be managed!  Once again, one could only marvel at how surely and sensitively the artists executed the variety in their emotional voyage and built its intensity to the end.

I think Gerald Finley and Julius Drake combined to give us a pretty extraordinary and overwhelming experience.  Whether or not one favours a ‘larger than life’, overtly emotional approach to Winterreise, this is an interpretation that must surely be given much thought and study.  A CD is just to be released on Hyperion.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014