In the five Schubert songs that opened Gerald Finley’s Friday, Feb. 4, recital at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, the great Canadian bass-baritone displayed an artfulness so polished and secure it all but disappeared. His rich-grain mahogany tone, smooth joins between registers, peerless phrasing, precise but never fussy diction, and remarkable breath control that can make an entire song register as a single unbroken sentence came together in seamless integration.
As he made his way from the fond sentiments of “An Sylvia” (Who is Sylvia) to the dark drive of “Bei dir allein!” (With you alone), Finley, with his longtime accompanist Julius Drake at the piano, made it seem all but effortless. With minimal hand gestures or changes in facial expression, the singer poured out a stream of lovely music that didn’t fully tap its emotional depths. The Schubert set raised a curious question: Can a performer be too good, too much in command for his own and his listeners’ good?
The notion was soon enough set to rest, in eight vivid Hugo Wolf settings of Eduard Mörike poems that followed. Later, in a wrenching new song cycle by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Finley dug to the tortured core of Thomas Hardy, the English writer who mourned his wife, Emma, in multiple poems. In only its third performance, the composer’s Without Ceremony was a probing, restless, and moving exploration of anguish. Finley and Drake left no stone unscoured.
First, in the Wolf sequence, Finley became by turns a freshly enthralled young lover, a jaunty nature lover out for a brisk walk in the woods, a homesick yearner, and among other fully voiced characters, a neurotic firefighter. Everything had clarity, energy, spontaneity.
The singer closed the first half of the program with a quasi-operatic scene, in which a performer upbraids a critic and eventually kicks him down a flight of stairs. “Abschied” (Goodbye) is the song’s aptly crisp title. With deft moves and chameleon-like shifts of musical temperament and physical demeanor, Finley made the two combatants spring to sharply delineated life. Drake, who let some passages in the Schubert accompaniments go muddy, was in sparkling form in the Wolf songs. The bristling treble flames he set loose in “Der Feuerreiter” (Fire-rider) were especially fine.
The audience’s appreciation of both Finley and Drake’s keen performances would have been heightened had the presenter, Stanford Live, provided texts (in German and English) for the Schubert and Wolf songs on the downloadable program. As Drake noted in brief remarks, poems weren’t just occasions for songs but igniters of his musical imagination; non-German-fluent listeners were denied the granular pleasure of seeing and hearing the settings unfold line by line.
The English texts of the seven Hardy poems were available for screen scrolling. Finley’s lucid diction made them all but superfluous. From the poet’s first pain-struck invocation of the departed — “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me” — the music and performance traveled a treacherous landscape of loss, mourning, and guilt. Turnage’s melodies were full of open, unfillable intervals, the accompaniments quizzical and brooding. The solemnity and dramatic torque of Britten came to mind. Chords were clouded with close harmonies and drifting dissonance. Several songs, including the last one, ended with the harmony unresolved. His wife’s death, for Hardy, was an eternal haunting.
Whatever Finley had held in reserve at the start of the evening was fully exposed here. His voice grew feverishly pinched on certain lines and turned abjectly hollow on others. The mention of a child’s joy was unguardedly wonderstruck. So, in a reverie of recollection, were the rhymes such as “In this bright spring weather / We’ll visit together” in “The Going.”
When he reached the cycle’s title song, which ironizes Emma’s death as a disappearance, Finley gave Turmage’s choice music the feel of a broken love ballad.
Without Ceremony turned raw grief and self-lacerating guilt into a work of emotional force and amplitude. Finley and Drake gave it dimension without overselling or exploiting the material. It came to its full unclosable circle with a one-line Epilogue that returns to the text and melody of that first “call to me, call to me” summons. In this full-hearted, fully committed performance, the unanswered response was eloquence distilled into art.
Finley and Drake turned to Shakespeare to close the two-hour program, in a buoyant, light-filled assortment that ranged from Thomas Morley’s “O mistress mine” to Erich Korngold’s “Hey Robin!” (another dual-character turn) to Cole Porter’s deliciously indulgent “Where is the life that late I led” from the musical Kiss Me, Kate. It was a spread to savor, with a fizzy encore of Morley’s “It was a lover and his lass” to top off this musical feast of many things.