Gerald Finley, Wigmore Hall, London – review

One of the advantages of booking an artist for a series of concerts is that they have the freedom to venture outside their usual stamping ground. Wigmore Hall is presenting Gerald Finley in a “residency” of three recitals this season – hardly enough really to claim to be in residence, but a good opportunity for a singer of catholic tastes to show how adventurous he can be.

This recital of songs by Liszt and Sibelius lived up to its billing and more – mostly little-known songs by two composers generally neglected in recital, some of them with a big-boned intensity that sent shivers down one’s spine, and all magnificently performed by Finley and his accompanist of 25 years, Julius Drake.

Taking on the role of Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, one of the longest and most strenuous operatic roles, has done Finley, now in his mid-50s, no harm at all. His lyric baritone has grown, expanded its horizons, but lost none of the beauty he had as a young singer – and there are not many who can say that.

It was linguistically an ambitious evening, as both Liszt and Sibelius wrote songs in a variety of languages. The Liszt group took in German, French, English and Italian, the most powerful songs reaching into Wagnerian territory (Liszt was Wagner’s father-in-law and the musical relationship sometimes feels just as close). A song like “Die Fischerstochter”, which looks fairly straightforward on the page, was revealed as a narrative of near-Wagnerian scale and depth. Even better was Finley’s singing of the three Petrarch Sonnets, in Liszt’s later, less florid version, grandly sung and with stirring, Italianate passion.

The second half of Sibelius – even less familiar, owing to the linguistic challenges – included songs in Swedish, English and German. There were some memorable finds here, including the haunted “Die stille Stadt”, which Finley turned into a cinematic panorama across an eerie, mist-enveloped landscape, and “På verandan vid havet” (“On a balcony by the sea”), which culminated in an awesome final climax, like “a presentiment of God”, which set the heavens over the Wigmore shaking. There is one more recital to come, featuring song cycles by Schubert and Rautavaara (a major premiere), so no resting on his laurels for Finley.

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