Having listened closely to the recent Jonas Kaufmann recording of Winterreise and found myself transported in places, unconvinced in others, I was fascinated to compare it with this. For all Kaufmann's blistering intensity and extraordinary vocal power, Finley offers us a reading of the work to which I feel I will return more readily. There are, quite simply, fewer rough edges here, fewer moments where I find myself noticing the voice intruding through the song, as occasionally happens with Kaufmann (such as his unfortunate scoop up to 'mit manchem Blumenstrauss' in the first song.
Here is a fabulous reading of the work where the work is, I think, allowed to stand more for itself. I will come back to Kaufmann to hear how he sings Winterreise, than to hear Winterreise. I will keep coming back to this disc to hear Winterreise. Add to that the beauty and intensity of Finley's singing, Julius Drake's wonderful playing, and the sheer quality of the recording, which is first rate, and you've a winner.
I am a huge admirer of Gerald Finley and recognise his versatility in everything from Wagner to the Baroque. The voice is intrinsically beautiful and produced with extraordinary evenness and steadiness, with no grinding gear changes or over-emphases.
However, it is that very concern for legato and the restraint of his expression which for me constitute an element of blandness in this recording. For some, the more overt and quasi-operatic manner of Kaufmann or Florian Boesch - both of whose recent "Winterreise" releases I have just very enthusiastically reviewed - provides more variety and interest than Finley's restrained manner.
Not that his delivery of the text is in any way inexpressive; his German is superb and his nuancing of dynamics often very moving - but he is reluctant to provide the listener with anything so vulgar as a full voice, preferring to adopt a smaller-scale interpretative stance. All of this is very much a question of taste; he is ably partnered by an experienced accompanist who is sometimes rather more animated than his singer. Nonetheless, I can well understand how some might prefer Finley and have no quarrel with that, especially given the beauty of his mezza voce, complemented by secure, resonant low notes, a lightly flecked upper range and perfect intonation. Personally, I derive more pleasure from the greater exuberance of baritones such as Boesch, Allen and Hynninen. Admirers of Finley - of which there must and should be legion - will not be disappointed, however.
[This review also posted on the MusicWeb International website]
on 3 March 2014
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.