Wednesday, March 24, 2010

finley/drake at zankel

Photo by Julien Jordes

Carnegie Hall Presents
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Gerald Finley, baritone
Julius Drake, piano

Songs by Schumann, Ravel, Barber, and Ives

It's always refreshing when the regular classical model works so perfectly. We've got our two musicians in their tuxedos doing what they do best. There's nothing revolutionary except the high quality of their artistry, and their ability to instill such vigor into rarely heard, excellent works of the past. And everything in this performance lined up: a well-matched partnership of singer and collaborative pianist (I hate the word accompanist, especially for this repertoire), an intimate hall (Zankel), an attentive audience (despite the always-intrusive rustling of the lyrics sheets), and rarely heard songs which paired intriguing texts with beautiful music.

The first half of the recital was devoted entirely to Schumann: the brief cycles Tragödie and Der arme Peter, as well as two sets of four songs each. Finley stormed in with a bold entrance in "Entflieh mit mir und sei mein Weib," his full baritone ringing out through the hall. By the end of the two-song Tragödie, a typically Romantic tale of love and loss and death (all texts by Heine, of course), it became apparent how excellent Finley's diction was at just about any dynamic. In the three songs of Der arme Peter Finley showed the full range of his expressive capabilities, highlighted in the insistent rhythms of the second song "In meiner Brust," and its deep, despairing end.

In one of the miscellaneous songs, "Dein Angesicht," I was startled by Finley's remarkable intensity at the softest possible level. Though completely audible, his voice somehow retained this quality of ultra-pianissimo which reminded me, oddly enough, of the extremes of softness made by the Berlin Philharmonic in their performance of Brahms' Second Symphony in November. The highlight of the first half was "Belsatzar," a ballad describing the famous blasphemous king murdered by his knights. An eerie opening ("Midnight drew nearer already/In mute rest lay Babylon), set up atmospherically by Drake, built slowly into just about the loudest singing I've ever heard, as Finley narrated the saga of the headstrong king. He acted out the role operatically, delivering a hand gesture worthy of those in Doctor Atomic's "Batter My Heart," while proclaiming in full-on badass tone "Ich bin der König von Babylon!" Actually, because of my love affair with Doctor Atomic, I kept having to remind myself that the singer on stage was not Robert Oppenheimer.

A bizarre and delightful little set of songs, Ravel's Histoires naturelles (with clever texts by Jules Renard) portrays five animals, each with their own vivid harmonic and rhythmic language. In "The Peacock," Ravel combines the dotted rhythms of the French overture with his own Impressionist, chromatic haze, both parodying and evoking the majesty of that odd bird. "The Cricket," naturally, is reticent, and "The Swan" features gorgeous, rippling piano arpeggios. Finley somehow brought reverence to these mostly irreverent texts, especially in the poignancy of "The Kingfisher" and the wit of "The Guinea Fowl."

The four Barber songs were fairly run-of-the-mill, with the exception of one gem: "Solitary Hotel," which excerpts a section from Ulysses. It brought up a number of interesting aesthetic issues which I may delve into in a later blog post: Barber matches Joyce's fragmented text with agitated but rich tonality. Although it would seem a more modernist composer would better suit Joyce's words, we might also remember that Joyce himself had fairly conservative tastes in music, favoring a lot of lightish opera and parlor music. Probing questions aside, Finley and Drake brought both Joyce's prose and Barber's music to life with nuance.

And, finally, the brilliant and fun songs of Ives. There is something so richly American about these songs that it's hard to judge them on strictly musical terms. "In the Alley," is like the Americana Die schöne Müllerin: a man spots a girl named Sally, falls in love, and is crushed when he sees her with another man, all in two minutes. Finley brought his vocal mastery to "Charlie Rutlage," intoned in a pitch-perfect Southern drawl, as he lamented the death of a cowherd. Drake turned Ives' wild harmonies and piled-up dissonances into sheer raw power, and he contributed his own vocal antics in hilariously shouted text.

Words cannot express the awesomeness of anything called "Slugging a Vampire," so I won't try. That song, the final on the program before a string of excellent encores by Ravel and Britten, lasted only 30 seconds but was the best half-minute seconds ever. I recommend any further performances advertise this song as top billing, to attract the Twilight crowd. I will leave you with the text, by Ives himself:

I closed and drew, but not a gun,
The refuge of the weak.
I swung with the left and I swung with the right
And I landed on his beak.

He started to pull the same old stuff,
But I closed in hard and called his bluff
Yet his face is still a-stickin' in the yellow sheet
And on the billboard a-down the street.

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