Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It's Toe-Tappingly Tragic! Gerald Finley Recital, 3/15/07

I’m not sure how most singers decide what to sing in recital, but there usually seems to be a theme of some sort or at least a uniting element. Finley’s recital was in two distinct halves – Schumann’s Dichterliebe in the first half and a bizarre hodgepodge of songs by American composers in the second half that had nothing in common with one another except the nationality of their composers. Perhaps if the songs in the second half had been limited to the Rorem songs about the Civil War (based on the writing of Walt Whitman) and the Barber and Ives love songs, it might’ve made more sense (albeit rather cliché sense) as a contrast between Love and War. The inclusion of some of the Ives songs, though cute and well-sung, gave the second half hints of cloying, cheesy Americana. Maybe that’s just my inner Marianne Dashwood coming out – I don’t really want to hear songs about little boys admiring their dads and stuff like that. I want maidens torn to pieces by lions and heartbroken emo boys wandering through wintry landscapes, turning everything they see into symbols of their own pain. In short, I’m a song sadist.

Finley’s Dichterliebe is apparently a work-in-progress, but having never heard it sung by anyone else, I can’t really say how successful he was. A little Wikipedia-fu has told me that Heine’s poems (which Schumann set to music for the cycle) have a hint of irony in them and parody the Romantic tradition while emulating it. Basically, the cycle is about a young man who falls in love with a girl who marries someone else, sending the heartbroken youth on a downward spiral that probably involved carving his initials into his hand or something. It’s all very Werther, and the language of the poems, while intensely lovely, is too bombastic to be taken very seriously. Apparently Schumann recognized the parodic nature of the poems, but was all caught up in his trials to marry Clara and, in between brushing his hair forward and lacing up his black Converse, composed the songs in a pretty straightforwardly Romantic style. The well-known lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau proposed that Schumann was in love with the idea of Clara rather than with Clara herself, and that he composed his most heartfelt love music when there were obstacles between them. Basically, Schumann was a drama-whore, and Fischer-Dieskau’s hypothesis is supported by Schumann’s choice of Heine’s “When I look into your eyes”, in which the narrator talks about the joy he gets from kissing and looking at his beloved, which turns to bitter tears when she says she loves him, in the Dichterliebe cycle.

Anyway, the meat in my babble sandwich is that I think Finley’s interpretation of Dichterliebe was unsuccessful (I won’t say “failed”, because something that beautifully sung isn’t a failure) because he was so serious about the whole thing. Of course, I never would’ve known that there was anything lacking about his interpretation if I hadn’t done some research about the material, but I did sense that there was something…off about the whole thing. Maybe it was the sheer intensity of Finley’s performance that did it; the emotions he portrayed were so strong and yet seemed to vacillate so widely from song to song. It was like Calculon in Coilette’s death scene in Coilette: A Calculon Story -- one second he’d be angry and would lower his brows appropriately, but then in the next song, he’d be sad, and the eyebrows would rise in the Pinchy Eyebrow Pyramid of Despair. Finley does have the most expressive forehead in opera, but all the back-and-forth, while textually appropriate at face-value, was a bit dizzying and, at worst, bipolar. Quiet, self-harming, introverted suffering seems more along the lines of Romanticism – otherwise, Werther would’ve popped a cap in Albert’s ass instead just passive-aggressively borrowing Albert’s pistols to shoot himself.

It’s difficult to fault Finley for going for the angry and sad bits so strongly, because his voice is at its most exciting when enraged. His voice does thin out a bit when he goes for the higher notes, but it’s never an unpleasant sound, just a change from silk velvet to cotton velvet, maybe. I think his German diction is very good; even though I don’t know much German, I could pick out a lot of words that I did know – lots of “herz”ing and “schmerz”ing, as per usual in lieder. With more practice (and with a different accompanist, perhaps), Finley’s Dichterliebe could be brilliant. On the whole, I found listening to the cycle on this time around enjoyable but somewhat baffling at times.

The second half was much more spotty in my opinion, though Finley’s singing was stronger in that section. The first three Ives songs (“Ich grolle night”, from “The Swimmers”, and “The Housatronic at Stockbridge”) were sumptuously sung with lovely English diction. I would not say that Finley has an illustrative voice; that is, his voice doesn’t have the same synaesthetic qualities as Andreas Scholl’s (who I saw last year at the same venue), and doesn’t call up specific pictures in my mind based on its sound alone, but it has a rich, chocolatey sound to it, shining with deep gold colors like a tiger’s eye. The next bunch of Ives songs were not so appealing to me, because they were corny slices of Americana (in my opinion), though they were beautifully and (when necessary) humorously sung. This is mostly just my own prejudice against my mother-tongue coming out; I find it very hard to take a song with the word “Daddy” in it seriously. The beginning and middle of “Tom Sails Away” were achingly lovely, but then “Daddy” came tromping up the hill and made me recoil.

After the Rockwellian dorkiness of the latter Ives songs, Ned Rorem’s settings of Walt Whitman’s Civil War impressions were rather gruesome and shocking. It wasn’t the subject of the songs – partially exuded brains and all – that bothered me; such scenes have been brilliantly set to music before, as in Britten’s War Requiem. Rorem’s settings of the texts often put the piano and the voice at odds with one another (brother against brother?), but I found the effect more obnoxious than thought-provoking. Each line was packed like a commuter train (and not an LA commuter train), words smashed together awkwardly in spite of Finley’s clear diction. There’s no harmony or melody in war, of course, but I just felt that Rorem wasn’t writing for the voice or for the words.

The Barber songs that closed the recital were what Dichterliebe should’ve been – alternately lyrical and martial, shifting song by song from tender sensuousness to frightening fierceness, and full of vivid images. The encore, another Ives song, combined the somewhat cheesy humor and the wistful nostalgia of the earlier set. It also proved that Finley is a first-class whistler.

Julius Drake was a very thumpy accompanist, his heels scrabbling on the floor as if someone were choking him with one of his own piano wires (maybe the ghost of Schumann taking revenge for the fucking up of his tempi?). He’d lean so heavily on the keys that he’d lever himself right off his bench, like John Cleese ranting about filthy Commie scum.

Overall, it was a satisfying, if at times confusing, performance, and I’m looking forward to hearing Gerald Finley in recital again, especially if he rethinks his program a bit. Some Schubert, maybe?

Photo copyright: Rolf Bock

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