Gerald Finley and Julius Drake electrify Library of Congress series

Thu Apr 26, 2018 at 10:51 am
Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke.

Washington could always have more lieder recitals. The Library of Congress offered its Coolidge Auditorium, one of the most intimate acoustics in the city, to singer Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake on Wednesday. The pair responded with a performance elegant and unnerving in turn.

In an opening Beethoven set, the Canadian bass-baritone sounded most warm and mellifluous at the bottom, as in “Wonne der Wehmut.” In the same song he showed exceptional control of the baritone range, making a dramatic decrescendo in one striking moment. Drake, playing with the large Steinway’s lid up, indulged too broadly in the instrument’s orchestral scope, overwhelming Finley’s delicate work in “Neue Liebe, neues Leben.”

Both musicians reveled in the comedy of “Aus Goethes Faust,” a setting of the words sung by Goethe’s Mephistopheles about a king who makes his favorite flea a minister of state. The performers omitted the choral part added by Beethoven at the end, as the lords and ladies complain of the flea and his relatives. In a hilarious gesture, Finley flattened the annoying flea with a swat on the piano timed to the final chord.

The rest of the first half, devoted to favorite Schubert songs, was like the Beethoven exclusively on the poetry of Goethe. Finley’s upper range became more ardent after a tentative start in the howl of rage Schubert created in “Prometheus,” as the titan railed against the gods. Drake’s strong hand at the keyboard provided much-needed booming support for his singer, who spat out the German diction to venomous effect, especially in the closing lines.

Equally lovely was the supple legato that made “An den Mond” (D. 259, the shorter one of the two settings Schubert composed) such a highlight, as well as the transparent tremolo accompaniment Drake gave to the ghostly “Geistes-Gruss.” Drake took center stage in the vociferous piano parts of “Rastlose Liebe” and “An Schwager Kronos,” while Finley’s endless breath support and concentrated tone stole the show in “Schäfers Klagelied” and especially the time-stopping “Wandrers Nachtlied II.”

The highlight of the recital, however, came at the end of the Schubert set, with the duo’s spell-binding rendition of “Erlkönig.” Drake made up for some stickiness in the repeated octaves with thunderous volume, suited to Finley’s carefully delineated characterizations of the song’s three voices. By this point Finley’s top notes became explosive and terrifying, leading to the work’s tragic conclusion, made shocking by Finley in spite of the song’s familiarity.

Russian songs followed intermission, theatrical romances by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the latter newer to Finley’s repertory. The Tchaikovsky songs seemed less accomplished, except for the mahogany smoothness of “Amid the din of the ball” and the melodic yearning of “None but the lonely heart.”

Finley dedicated the Rachmaninoff set to the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, an exemplary interpreter of these songs. Drake tended to rush Finley at times in these pieces, where his singer, a consummate narrator of stories, wanted to take his time. The duo was most in sync in “Fate,” with its vocal and pianistic rendering of the lead motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Finley was careful not to allow the repeated statements of “Stúk stúk stúk” (Tap tap tap) to become comic or perfunctory, keeping all of the menace of fate’s repeated knocking. The sullen “Christ is risen” and sweeping “Spring waters” made for a triumphant climax.

An encore-like set of folk song arrangements concluded the recital, including favorites like Copland’s “Ching-a-Ring Chaw,” with its mouthful of nonsense, and curiosities like the Scottish tune “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” arranged by Respighi. Britten’s charming version of “The Crocodile,” an exceptionally tall tale, was a delight. The actual encore, Haydn Wood’s sentimental ballad “Roses of Picardy,” honored the centenary of the end of World War I, as well as Finley’s young daughter, Rose.

The Library of Congress has added an event to its free concert series, featuring the Washington debut of Italy’s Quartetto di Cremona 8 p.m. May 11, performing on four Stradivarius instruments once owned by Niccolò Paganini.

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