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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D911 (1827)
Gerald Finley (baritone); Julius Drake (piano)
rec. 26-28 February 2013, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London. DDD
German text and English translation included
HYPERION CDA68034 [74:37]

How things change. With so many fine releases coming into the catalogue each month one’s perspective on which versions of a particular work are especially recommendable quite often shift. This is a case in point. Only a few weeks ago the site’s reviewers were invited to suggest nominations for Winterreise as part of our MusicWeb International Recommends feature. I nominated the recording by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, not least because I love to hear a tenor sing these songs in the original high keys. I don’t resile from that choice. However, had this new performance by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake been to hand then I think it’s likely that I would have nominated it as well. We are allowed to make up to two nominations and in the case of the Schubert song-cycles a recommendation for both high and low voice performances seems very reasonable.
 
Gerald Finley, usually partnered by Julius Drake, has already recorded some notable song recitals for Hyperion, including two very fine Schumann programmes (review ~ review). Finley’s career was in its early stages when Graham Johnson began his great Hyperion project to record all of Schubert’s Lieder. Finley was involved towards the end of the project (review). Nowadays he is acclaimed as one of the finest baritones currently before the public, both on the operatic stage and on the concert platform. I fancy that this newWinterreise will enhance that reputation still further.
 
In his elegant and perceptive booklet notes Richard Wigmore makes several very interesting points. In reminding us that initially Schubert set only twelve of Müller’s poems, adding the other twelve only after he’d discovered them a few months later, he points out that as a result Schubert’s cycle does not have all the poems in Müller’s published order. Tellingly, Wigmore underlines the reaction of Schubert’s circle of friends when they initially heard the first twelve songs, sung through by the composer to his own accompaniment: they were ‘baffled at the unrelieved gloom of the songs’. Nearly two hundred years later we are so familiar with these great settings that we can’t begin to recapture the initial reaction to what were then new songs but, as well as the gloom to which Mr Wigmore rightly draws attention, I’d add that several of the songs must have seemed decidedly strange in 1827. There’s little in Schubert’s prior works to prepare one for the almost Schoenbergian jagged accompaniment to Letzte Hoffnung, for example, nor for the bleak sparseness of Der Leiermann - neither of those songs was in the original set of twelve but the point is still valid.
 
Right at the start, with the performance of Gute Nacht, one feels this is going to be a distinguished Winterreise. The pace that is set by Drake is deliberate and firm; the tread is sorrowful. Finley makes an immediate, strong impression. His voice is firm and focused; his words are clear and the vocal line is seamless. He takes great care over the words, though not in a pedantic way, and although we’ve yet to hear the story unfold there’s a touch of bitterness in the way he delivers the words ‘Gute Nacht’ at the end of the third stanza. The change to the major for verse four is eased in quite beautifully by Drake and both performers are smoother and quieter in their delivery of this last stanza. It’s early days in our winter journey but already the signs are that we’re in for an engrossing experience.
 
In both Die Wetter fahne and Gefrorne Tränen I was struck by just how much expressive detail there is in both the singing and the playing - for example at the start of the second stanza of the latter song. Julius Drake provides a restless, unsettled introduction to Der Lindenbaum and the ‘horn calls’ in the piano part just before the voice enters are beautifully weighted. Finley’s delivery of the song is soulful yet controlled, especially in the last verse.
 
The pace for Auf dem Flusse suggests a weary plod. Finley sounds reproachful at the way the river’s nature has changed with the onset of winter but as the end of the song approaches - Schubert’s stark and spare music for the last verse is expertly rendered - the mood has darkened into bitterness. Irrlicht is very well done: there are some tempo modifications which aren’t marked in the score but which come off really well, adding to the instability of the music. By the time we get to Rast the traveller is weary, both in body and spirit: the title of the song may translate as ‘Rest’ but such rest as Finley’s traveller may get is certainly not repose.
 
On the surface the start of Frühlingstraum is innocent; Finley and Drake make it sound so relaxed and easy. However Drake’s stabbing accents and Finley’s vocal delivery in verse two of the poem dispel any such notions and we hear great sadness in verse three. That pattern is repeated in the next three verses with the final verse being especially expressive. The reading of Einsamkeit is very dramatic, especially in the last stanza where Finley’s words seem to be wrenched from him. Remember, this would have been the last song that Schubert’s friends heard at that first, incomplete run-through: no wonder they were baffled.
 
I was fascinated by the way Julius Drake plays the opening of Die Post for it’s not as robust as in many accounts that I’ve heard. That said, Drake is right: the marking is piano; indeed forte markings are not all that common in this song. What we get from these perceptive musicians is a somewhat wistful, regretful performance, one in which the louder passages are thrown into sharper relief. It works splendidly.
 
There’s real despair in Finley’s account of Der greise Kopf; the reference in the poem to the grave is not there for nothing. There’s no unwarranted exaggeration in Die Krähe but even so one can tell, largely from the vocal colouring that’s employed, that this bird is a baleful, unwelcome presence. I’ve referred already to the jagged accompaniment to Letzte Hoffnung which is a century or so ahead of its time. Drake’s playing is a key factor in the way the instability of this song is realised. Der Wegweiser builds in intensity and tragedy without any recourse to histrionics.
 
Drake weights the solemn opening chords of Das Wirtshaus superbly. Finley’s delivery of this song is very convincing: his singing is withdrawn and drained but the desperate resolution with which he voices the repeat of the last two lines sets up Mut! and the traveller’s last attempt at bravado exceptionally well. Die Nebensonnen is a fine example of music in which there’s great economy of means yet tremendous emotional impact is achieved: a case of less means more. The performance here is spellbinding. As for Der Leiermann, Finley makes his tone pale and desolate, just like the music, while Drake makes the piano sound distant, almost other-worldly.
 
This account of Winterreise is a triumph. The sheer quality of Gerald Finley’s singing is magnificent, as is the pianism of Julius Drake but what really makes their performance so special is the perception that they bring to the music. Time and again my ear was caught by a tiny detail, perhaps a little bit of vocal colouring by Finley or by a little inflection or instance of perfectly judged rubato by Drake. These are the differences between a very good Winterreise and a distinguished one.
 
We are indeed fortunate in having so many top-quality accounts of this great cycle in the catalogue but this new one is a recording that I feel sure will be added to the shortlist of the very best.
 
It only remains to be said that the booklet is up to Hyperion’s usual high standards and that engineer David Hinitt has recorded singer and pianist very well indeed and in ideal balance with each other.
 
All Lieder collectors should hasten to hear this.
 
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Winterreise


Experience Classicsonline