Gerald Finley shows remarkable vocal artistry in Ravinia recital

August 10, 2012
By Dennis Polkow

Gerald Finley performed a diverse vocal recital Thursday night at Ravinia's Martin Theater.

Despite a diversity of reactions to John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic — which was presented at Lyric Opera in 2007 — one element universally praised was the stellar performance of Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who originated the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Performing Thursday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre to a small but devoted crowd with new Steans Music Institute vocal program director Kevin Murphy as accompanist, Finley delivered a remarkable recital that showcased his talents as both singer and actor.

It was particularly fascinating that Finley chose to open the evening with Erlkönig—not in the familiar Schubert setting, but in the obscure, even darker setting by his contemporary Carl Loewe.

Yes, the Goethe poem is line for line the same, but Loewe takes the story much more literally than Schubert did. Whereas Schubert’s setting views the narrative as more of a psychological drama, Loewe sets the music for the characters quite distinctly, giving Finley the opportunity to impressively voice three separate characterizations with astounding delineation and effectiveness: the fear of the son, the indifferent scolding of the father and the seductiveness of the elf king.

Three other Loewe ballads rounded off the set, each also having separate characterizations that were delivered with no less care. Tom der Reimer makes use of a similar supernatural elf theme and Der wandelnde Glocke spotlights a boy being chased to church by the church’s bell.

The best of the set was Loewe’s setting of the Scottish legend of Edward with its chilling climax of murder played to the hilt by Finley both as the neurotically concerned mother and the treacherous, cursing son with Finley’s deliciously deep low notes exquisitely made part of the overall vocal line.

Schumann’s early Liederkreis, Op. 24 closed out the first half of the program. Here Finley preferred tenderness over angst in the nine-song cycle of settings by Heinrich Heine that have the scent of the tomb hanging over them. The soloist offered a rich, controlled sound throughout with clear diction, always bringing out the more optimistic elements of the songs.

Lieb Liebschen leg’s Händchen aufs Herze mein and Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann, for instance, were given less urgency than is customarily displayed. Finley seemed most at home with the more pastoral portions of the cycle, particularly Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter where he pulled back further with each verse to a hushed, almost astonishing tranquility.

The highlight of the cycle was Mit Myten und Rosen, lieblich und hold which combined the best of both approaches, Finley displaying the most effective angst of the evening while also fading off into almost nothingness at the end of the song.

Murphy, for his part, was with Finley every step of the way, astutely attentive to the slightest shift of vocal color and dynamic nuance and reflected these with precision and poetry.

Ravel’s Histories naturelles with its musical portrayal of animal sounds is often done as lighter fare and for comic relief at recitals, but not here. Much as Finley had done in the Loewe ballads, he took the challenges of delineating narration from the sounds of the animals themselves quite seriously, never over-singing or going for the cheap laugh. A particular highlight was Le grillon which Finley sang quietly while Murphy exquisitely brought the dynamic level of the piano to that of little more than an actual cricket chirp.

The animal theme carried over to the finale of a set of songs by Benjamin Britten. “The Crocodile” from Tom Bowling and Other Song Arrangements, made for an almost vaudeville-like end to the evening with Finley acting as if each verse were the final word on the tall tale only to be surprised by a key change pushing him to seemingly add more to the crocodile’s tail, so to speak.

An appreciate audience gave Finley and Murphy a well-deserved standing ovation and were enthusiastic enough to actually clap in time between encores, which including more Schumann and Ravel as well as Cole Porter’s Tale of the Oyster, rendered with the same attentive stylistic detail and character delineation as the main portion of the evening.

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