As their previous collaborations for Hyperion have shown (extremely well received recordings of Ives and Barber songs), baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake constitute something of a dream team. And this new recording of Dichterliebe, coupled with a selection of Schumann's other Heine settings, represents a master class of nuanced Lieder performance, Finley's intelligent and minutely detailed singing matched by Drake's infinitely responsive accompaniment.
Although the main selling point of the disc is the song cycle, Finley also gives us just shy of forty minutes of other Heine songs and for me this is where the attributes that served him and Drake so well in their albums of American song bring the most totally convincing results. Finley's heroic tone and impassioned delivery are perfectly suited to the opening of 'Tragödie' and although some might raise an eyebrow at the slow initial tempo set for 'Die beiden Grenadiere', the performance culminates in rousing climax, emphasising the wonderful juxtaposition of the Marseillaise and Heine's ambivalent verse.
The three parts of 'Der arme Peter' are beautifully done, Finley captures well the required artlessness against Drake's skpping accompaniment in the first, the simple yearning of the second and the various characterisations of the third. The ballade, 'Belsatzar', is no less successful, the drama built up with great skill and Finley's voice in suitably imperious form, his characterisation is such that you almost expect him to burst into demonic laughter after proudly declaring 'Ich bin der König von Babylon!'
The remaining songs, before we get to Dichterliebe, are three of the Heine settings included in Myrthen - a beautifully delicate and gloriously sung account of 'Die Lotusblume' and no less fine accounts of 'Was will die einsame Träne?' and 'Du bist wie eine Blume' – and four songs jettisoned from the cycle just prior to publication ('Lehn' deine Wang' an meine Wang', 'Es leuchtet meine Liebe', 'Dein Angesicht so lieb und schön' and 'Mein Wagen rollet langsam'.) It's a clever piece of programming that makes one realise how different the cycle might have ended up and Finley again turns in excellent performances, impassioned in the first two, touchingly introspective in the second pair.
So, on to Dichterliebe itself, and while all the qualities of the first part of the disc are still there in abundance, there were times in the cycle when I just wished for a bit more fantasy, some more Romantic Schwung. It's telling that in the narrative ballades earlier on the disc Finley was so outstanding but occasionally in the first-person songs of Dichterliebe I failed to believe that the performers were really experiencing the deep feelings of 'the most confessional of composers', as Richard Wigmore describes Schumann in his liner note. Somehow, 'Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen' just didn't send a tingle down the spine like it should, 'Allnächtlich im Traume' was rather too straight-faced, and 'Ich grolle nicht', its 'nicht zu schnell' interpreted cautiously as seems now to be the rule, sounded rather lacking in passion, despite Finley's high G (the baritone choosing a lower version of the cycle). For all the four-square stoicism of his accompanist, I couldn't help wishing for a bit of the good, honest emotion of Fritz Wunderlich's classic DG recording.
It seems churlish, though, to complain about performances that pack in so much in the way of interpretative insight and Schumann's cycle, while undoubtedly the product of a man in love, is still the product of a highly intellectual musician; as such, a more cerebral approach brings definite rewards. Among the myriad details and inflections are the exquisite and impossibly hushed 'Ich liebe dich' in 'Wenn ich in deine Auge seh'', a lovely floated sotto voce in the final verse of 'Allnächtlich im Traume', and a wonderful snarl at 'Zerrissen mir das Herz' in 'Und wüßten's die Blumen'.
It is also worth pointing out that vocally Finley need not suffer comparisons from any previous interpreters. His baritone is rich, smooth and suave, imposing as he conjures up the cathedral in 'Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome' or angry as he spits out the words of 'Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen'. Finley's way with 'Die alten bösen Lieder' is similarly impressive although I felt the slowish tempo here, and Drake's restrained way with accompaniment, robbed the song of some of its power, despite a wonderfully dreamy and poetic rendition of the postlude. In the end, though, Finley succeeds in creating a character more strong-willed and forceful than we're used to in this work; a grown-up, slightly more world-weary poet who, on repeated listenings, proves himself every bit as worthy of our sympathy.
Finley's many admirers will find, once again, so much to marvel at in terms of supremely intelligent, sensitive and technically superb singing. And although his way with Dichterliebe might lack straight-forward ardour, there's still an awful lot to enjoy and admire in it. Hyperion's sound is unobtrusively excellent.
By Hugo Shirley
UK Release Date: 1 September