This winter, as ever, we have been treated to yet more accounts of Schubert's Beckettian song-cycle Winterreise. And I have no doubt that, in terms of sheer popularity, Jonas Kaufmann's new recording on Sony – how much did the technology multinational pay to lure him over from Decca? – will be the most popular. And with all the glories of Kaufmann's voice on offer, if in slightly shorter supply than on his recording of Die schöne Müllerin, you can hear why. But it's up against some serious musical and psychological competition with Gerald Finley's performance on Hyperion. And in my humble opinion, it's this latter disc that proves the real deal.
Kaufmann is an opera singer. He fills spaces as vast as the Met with roles such as Lohengrin and Parsifal and, no doubt, Siegfried and Otello will follow. He's also proved a remarkable performer of Lieder, not least in his Harmonia Mundi disc of Strauss songs with pianist Helmut Deutsch, who has been Kaufmann's steadfast accompanist for a while. It's eight years, however, since that Strauss disc first appeared and what succeeds in those proto-dramatic Lieder, prefiguring the composer's burst into operatic glory, doesn't translate to Schubert's equally potent but perhaps more muted works.
I noted when Kaufmann performed Die schöne Müllerin at Wigmore Hall in November 2010 that his was a strapping interpretation of the piece, a quality that had certainly translated from his 2009 disc. The same issue creeps into this Winterreise. While force and anger are certainly part of the journey, they should not become the be-all and end-all. And yet Kaufmann's diction, the focus of the low and mid voice and the sheer muscularity of his performance are winning qualities in themselves.
But where, oh where, is the existential crisis that is so essential to this cycle's narrative? Listening to the disc, I longed for the Lear-like remonstrations of Florian Boesch, as well as the broken melancholy of Padmore (to say nothing of their truly august predecessors in this repertoire). And there is always the problem of Kaufmann's top notes. They either ring too loud – no doubt thrilling for those who have bagged a ticket for his live performance at the Royal Opera House next month – or they trip into an ever huskier mezzo voce.
I adore the 'baritonal' attributes of Kaufmann's voice, perfect in many ways for this piece – and Deutsch plays superbly, if a little fussily, throughout – but the emotional range is just not extreme enough. He simply doesn't delineate genuine get-up-and-go and the delirious muscularity of the later songs, such as 'Mut!'. That emotional uniformity is exacerbated by his seeming unwillingness to go to the darkest recesses of his soul for many of the songs which require a more febrile approach. You don't go on this journey to feel moderately exhausted; it should absolutely wreck you.
How welcome then are the subtleties and severities of Finley's performance with Julius Drake. Finley is also an opera singer, now including Hans Sachs and Amfortas in his repertoire. And yet, unlike Kaufmann, he is brilliantly able to temper his voice to individual situations. This is not an opera singer 'doing' Lieder, this is a singer who is entirely at home in both. Psychologically acute, superbly paced, Finley's performance, for me, wins hands down.
Rather than mezzo voce we get eerie, shivering whispers. Even the opening phrases of 'Gute Nacht' are ambiguous. The song begins as a story and then, we realise, it has become a confession. And unlike Deutsch's rushed introduction to 'Der Lindenbaum', we get something rhapsodic from Julius Drake. It allows us to enjoy the image for a while, before it cruelly turns into a hallucination. All of this is aided superbly by Hyperion's more intimate production.
But Finley pushes these boundaries too. The nerve-wracking 'des gazen Winters Eis!' at the end of 'Gefrorne Tränen' is suitably stentorian. But while 'Mut!' also returns to a more strident dynamic, the tone has manifestly changed. Here Finley employs a forte entirely befitting the more despondent mood of the end of the cycle. It is a cruelly lusty recollection of former glories, rather than a mere repeat. Such calibrations of tone and texture make all the difference, with the abject, breathy close to Finley's performance just another highlight in this veritable masterclass.