Songs by Ravel

Gerald Finley, baritone; Julius Drake, piano (Hyperion CDA 67728)

7 June 2009 4 stars

RavelHaving already tackled Ives, Barber and Schumann for Hyperion – to great acclaim – Gerald Finley now puts his burnished baritone to the service of Ravel and his enigmatic song output. If anything, the stylistic and emotional range of Ravel's songs brings him close to Ives, but for all their beauty and mastery, Ravel still steers largely clear of subjective engagement, even in this most personal of genres.

This is less a criticism than an observation of what makes Ravel's songs so intriguing and lies behind their special beauty: they might, as Roger Nichols rightly says in his characteristically learned and entertaining booklet essay, 'embrace a whole world', but it's an exquisite world distilled from the slightly objective essence of the French Mélodie. In the 'art songs' Finley is a near ideal interpreter, his beautiful voice and characteristic intelligence come together with an instinctive and totally idiomatic grasp of French to emphasise the humour and beauty of the wonderful Histoires naturelles which open the disc. 'Le cygne' – a distant relative of Saint-Saëns's own highly melodic swan – is particularly fine, with Finley capturing a touching sense of wonder, repeated in 'Le martin-pêcheur'. Finley's accompanist, Julius Drake, is his typically sensitive and virtuosic self, too, rising to the challenges of Ravel's ingenious descriptive effects with relish.

Finley is again suave and honey-toned in Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, but for me there could have been a little more character given to these brief evocations of Cervantes' knight; in 'Chanson romanesque' he sounds almost too adeptly seductive. The rhetorical demands of 'Chanson épique', however, are met with thrilling vocal security, even if 'Chanson à boire' again misses some of the knight's ineptness in its robust delivery.

In the four (of five) Chants populaires included in the programme, Finley is once again outstanding. He is more successful, however, in capturing the folky simplicity of 'Chanson française' and 'Chanson hébraïque' than 'Chanson italienne' – a  little overloaded with emotion, so that simplicity is lost as it becomes more a knowing parody of Puccini – and the naïveté of final Burns setting, 'Chanson écossaise', is similarly missed. These criticisms, however, are to be read in the context of the whole disc, and it can be easy to take Finley's unusually refined artistry for granted. More often than not, it resonates perfectly with Ravel's expressive world and it seems churlish to complain of his artistry being at odds with some of the folk-songs' artlessness. In any case, the true folky authenticity of these songs is questionable, having already been filtered through Ravel's own refined musical processes.

This refinement is in evidence again in the rarefied historicism of the Deux épigrammes de Clément Marot, particularly with the delicate piano writing to describe the spinet in 'D'Anne jouant de l'espinette'. This is followed by Cinq melodies populaires grecques where Finley and Drake let their hair down in performances of humour and passion – listen in particular to Finley's grand exclamations of 'Quel gallant m'est comparable', answered by the piano's quirky acciaccaturas.

The recital closes with Deux melodies hébraïques, the grand, pious 'Kaddisch' followed by the anti-philosophy of 'L'énigme éternelle'. Just these two songs traverse much of the 'whole world' of Ravel's songs; emotionally and philosophically if not geographically. That Finley and Drake navigate their way through this varied and subtle and part of Ravel's output with their usual sensitivity and skill – not to mention vocal lustre, from the baritone, and dexterity, from his pianist – is probably by now to be expected. That the the disc is of the expected high quality, however, makes it no less fine a recital or worthy addition to the artists' joint discography. Highly recommended.

By Hugo Shirley


FinleyRelated articles:

CD Review: Schumann Heine Lieder from Gerald Finley and Julius Drake (Hyperion)
CD Review: Gerald Finley's second disc of Ives songs (Hyperion)
CD Review:
Finley and Drake in songs by Barber (Hyperion)
Gerald Finley