Gerald Finley's Winter Journey

Jason Victor Serinus on January 28, 2014
Gerald Finley
Gerald Finley

There are times when a critic wishes it were possible to post an entire video of an interview online. That’s what I kept feeling during my 42-minute Skype chat with handsomely voiced baritone Gerald Finley. Almost 54 at the time of our conversation, the UK-based Canadian artist, who performs Franz Schubert’s great song cycle Die Winterreise with pianist Julius Drake at Cal Performances’ Hertz Hall on Feb. 2, began chatting with a most welcoming smile, chuckled frequently, and remained in openhearted good spirits while probing the mysteries of the 24 songs that are the defining test of many a singer’s art.

Finley’s art is known in these parts, some from his live performances with San Francisco Opera (in Dr. Atomic) and San Francisco Performances (Dichterliebe), but mostly through recordings. When we began speaking, he noted that his year had just gotten off to a brisk start with a performance of Haydn’s The Creation in London and a recording of Fauré’s Requiem with the King’s College Choir.

Are you preparing for your tour?

Amidst other things. I’ve just done two Winterreise performances, one at London’s Wigmore Hall, the other in Alicante, Spain, which is not a very seasonal thing to do. In any case, it was a lovely trip. The Spaniards, in spite of their economic challenges, are still pretty devoted to their music.

It was a really extraordinary reception. This particular music society started in 1972 with Victoria de los Angeles, who gave them [chuckles] an eclectic start to their vocal series, since she would do everything from Puccini to Granados and de Falla. They have had major singers perform Schubert, but never Winterreise. It was great to offer it.

De los Angeles knew how to work with the vibrato, how to open it in certain places, vary it as necessary, and sing straight tone when appropriate.

Yes. It’s unbelievable discipline and hard work and, as you say, what the mechanics of the voice can do for the expression. Some of us are trying to keep those sorts of things going, but it’s really difficult in this day and age when things happen so quickly and people like the instant stars whose voices last a few years before they go off the rails.

Was your Wigmore Hall Winterreise recorded? I’m surprised to discover only two Schubert recordings amid your large discography.

Happily, my Winterreise recording with Julius Drake for Hyperion is hot off the press, and will hit the main market in March. There should be copies at the recital.

You know, I’ve had so much respect for this guy, Schubert; it’s taken a long time to feel that my relationship with him is something worth sharing [chuckles]. Schubert was the first serious song composer that I knew as a young artist. [Dietrich] Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey, and Barry McDaniel’s interpretations were in my head, and no one could do it better than they. That’s what I aspired to. But it’s really the simplicity of the writing, which is so vulnerable, that left me taking a long time to have confidence in my own vocal sensibilities and feeling that recording Schubert would have any value.

One of my favorite Winterreise recordings is Alice Coote’s from Wigmore Hall. I learn so much from listening to colleagues’ recordings, and one of the wonderful things about Alice’s is her risk taking. She risks a lot, all of the time, and she always achieves, and that’s the great thing about her singing. But it also gives me a sense of confidence, as in, “OK, maybe I can be individual, too.” And I think in a piece like Winterreise that has 24 segments, in each of which you can create your own event, that stringing them together can create an even more extravagant journey.

Julius Drake and I have had a lot of fun. … It’s exhausting and intense, there’s no question about that. But we’re first-night people; we always like to make it a first night.

Julius Drake and I have had a lot of fun. I don’t think we offer a performance in the same way twice. We’ve done a few Winterreises over the last few years, and we feel confident that each show is going to be different. It’s about the relationship between ourselves and the audience. It’s exciting, and an exciting piece to perform — exhausting and intense, there’s no question about that. But it’s going to be fresh, no matter what. We’re first-night people; we always like to make it a first night.

Finally, my artistic experience is enough that I now feel I can tackle the Winterreise, which is full of wide-ranging emotion — from nothing to full passion — which can’t be held physically, of course, but which has to be delivered with the idea of tension. But I think we live in an age now where people’s awareness of what exhausts us (despite the phenomenon of the jet age, which is in itself a tiring thing), and our awareness of physical well-being, is higher. We’re fortunate to have these continuing careers, even at our extended age [chuckles].

In the Bay Area, we went through a period when there were one four performances of Schumann’s Dichterliebe in a single season. Now the pendulum seems to have swung toward Schubert’s Winterreise as the cycle of choice for visiting baritones.

Interesting. Perhaps we’re all reaching that age — the Keenlyside, the Goerne, the Holzmair, the Maltmann — where we feel the confidence is kind of there to do it. And, of course, Dichterliebe is a young man’s cycle … well, I still like to do it now, but with a reflective view on it. But perhaps this is where we’re all going.

I think one of the hardest things to decide as a recital artist is if one becomes the character. Do you take on a personage? What do you evoke?

In the past year or two, I’ve reviewed live Winterreise performances by Wolfgang Holzmair and the very different Matthias Goerne. Holzmair’s was all of a piece, very deeply felt, and just wonderful. Goerne, who was astounding, virtually went mad in front of us. He went off the deep end, tried to grasp onto something, and then completely lost touch. Where do you go with it? How do you imagine the journey?

Elements of both of those. I think one of the hardest things to decide as a recital artist is if one becomes the character. Do you take on a personage? What do you evoke? Is it a minidrama with the orchestra, or is it a mechanism by which one can understand where Schubert was coming from in relation to the poetry?

I think I’m a mixture of those two. I would love to think I’m not one extreme or the other.

They’re not mutually contradictory, by any means.

On no, not at all. I would love to feel there are elements of both of those ideals in terms of commitment. Hopefully, people will gain insight into who I am as an artist and hopefully, more importantly, what Schubert was trying to say.

To be honest, some of the things I’ve been dealing with in my own life in terms of trying to get my singing really in order, and in trying to make it as committed a performance as I can with who I am as a singer — where I’ve made my journeys — have been fascinating, because doing a piece like Winterreise, you do become aware of “Gosh, I wasn’t able to do that before,” or “maybe I can explore this element of the writing.”

I’m certainly committed to it, and that’s my fundamental. I love the poetry. I love what Schubert does to look at the state of this man.

The most inspirational listening I did was of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten. You hear a voice that is as particular as Pears’, and you ask, “Can I really stand 78 or 80 minutes of that sound going through this amazing music?” And, of course, within the first eight bars you’re going, “This legato, the textual reflection, the sublime playing of Britten, that kind of intense insistence. …” Whenever I listen to them, I can’t stop listening, because I’m always fascinated by what’s going to happen.

To me, it’s a wonderful thing where the purity of the devotion to the line and the singing — not so much the drama, actually — somehow is amazingly beautiful. So it’s three points of the compass, in some ways, with those three guys, and somehow there’s still a compass point left for me. Or replace any of those men with Hotter. That cavern of sound, the depth of feeling, the endless amounts of breath with which he can get through one end of a phrase to another and still have that solemnity … it’s fantastic. So I’m inspired.

I always admire those artists who give me the thrill of risk. Maybe there’ll be a few things I risk that work, and a few that don’t, but I’m certainly committed to it, and that’s my fundamental. I love the poetry. I love what Schubert does to look at the state of this man. Occasionally he’ll highlight another element of the trauma, of the breakdown, of the loss of hope, of the trying to hold himself together, of the simple beauty of being outdoors and yet being in great pain. The frozen outside, the frozen inside of his soul, and yet a heart beating with absolute fire: Those are the things which tend to come into focus and then come out of focus. I love the whole idea of each performance literally being a new journey.

It’s not a neat package at all, and I love that. I love that it’s adventurous.

Julius plays so sensitively. But he’s also encouraging. If he feels we can exploit an element of drama, he’ll be very encouraging. He’s sort of my wanderstab. We do travel very much as companions through this piece. We’re always discovering new stuff, but we’re journeying; we’re making it work. The responses so far have been pretty robust, which has been very nice.

As I said to Julius, in the end, we know that whatever people take from a piece like this — you know, a Canadian and an Englishman presenting German romantic poetry to an English-speaking audience — Winterreise remains one of the treasures of the vocal canon, and I’m pretty delighted to be coming to the campus to do this.

You say Winterreise is one of the greats of the canon. Why?

Gerald Finley and Julius Drake bring Schubert’s Die Winterreise to
Gerald Finley and Julius Drake bring Schubert’s Die Winterreise to Cal Performances

Fundamentally, I feel there’s the composer near the end of his life, encountering a poet who has written things in which he, Schubert, somehow feels his own essence lies. Some of the almost atonal stuff he wrote — in No. 16, “Letzte Hoffnung,” you have no tonality for the longest time — the adventurousness of the writing is fantastic. It’s almost like late Beethoven, with literal hints of madness in the writing. I feel amazed as an artist to be able to look at it full on and say, “OK, I want to do that journey with him.”

There’s not much happiness in it. It’s a seriously dark work — or not. Is there hope in the end? What is that final song with the organ grinder? It’s not a neat package at all, and I love that. I love that it’s adventurous. I love that performers can make all kinds of decisions about it, and yet the structure and the essence of the music still survives.

Each song is a gem. Each verse of the poetry is perhaps simple to look at on the page or in translation, but from a musical viewpoint, it has 10 layers that can perhaps be peeled back. At the least, you get these tremendous, complex, wine tastes of different flavors that, in performance, you can choose to highlight.

That’s why I think it’s great. It’s rather inexplicable, and yet it’s apparently simple. For me, this is the element that the greatest works of art share: They appear simple, but as soon as you start to live with then, somehow there’s depth and depth and depth; it’s like a trompe l’oeil into which you fall deeper and deeper. And the deeper you fall, in this piece, of course, the crazier you could become. But somehow, there’s always this cradle of the music to keep you sanitized and within reach of life.

Sanitized as opposed to sane?

Sanitized, to keep the mold from growing on you. Sanitized and sane; you can wash your hands and feel you can come out clean, somehow, at the end.

I always think the image of the barefoot organ grinder at the end is so powerful and wonderful. Great theses and dissertations have been written about that one song, and we only have one crack at it in the performance.

I feel we have come out clean in the end. This has been a total joy.

I agree. And, as much as I love talking about Winterreise, I love singing it even more.