Gerald Finley, Wigmore Hall, London – review

In a couple of months’ time Gerald Finley will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in aid of charity. The view will no doubt be spectacular, but as he said at the end of this evening, he has climbed some musical mountains in the course of his 25-year career as a singer, too.

The recital marked the end of the Canadian baritone’s residency at Wigmore Hall this season. Something special was needed for the occasion and that came in the form of the premiere of a Wigmore Hall commission, Rubáiyát, a new song cycle by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara being performed in its version for voice and piano.

In later life Rautavaara’s music has found a new simplicity and a wider audience with works such as Cantus arcticus and his “Angel of Light” symphony. How many of his admirers, though, would recognise him in Rubáiyát? Richly coloured cascades of notes tumble from the piano part, like a rainbow seen through a waterfall, and the singer’s long, lyrical lines are carried on a flood of sound. Surely this is more like luxuriant Szymanowski, or some forgotten indulgence of late Strauss?

In its orchestral version Rubáiyát must rival Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer in its luscious, hothouse atmosphere. Here, Julius Drake at the piano did his best to keep up with its torrents of notes and Finley, in imposing voice, poured out a stream of generous tone. The words, taken from Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát, do not make much of an impression. In fact, about half get lost in the flood. As an outpouring of hedonist excess, though, Rautavaara’s song cycle hits the mark.

On either side of it Finley offered Schubert’s Schwanengesang, split in two. The Rellstab settings, heard in the first half, were rather untidy (finger-slips from Drake and forgotten words from Finley), though the more muscular songs such as “Kriegers Ahnung” were powerfully sung. The Heine settings, after the interval, opened with a towering performance of “Der Atlas” and found a climax in the high-pressure intensity of “Der Doppelgänger”. This duo’s way with Schubert has strayed far from the intimacy of a musical evening with friends. Their Schubert almost seems to be knocking on Wagner’s door, but the result is undeniably impressive.

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