Classical CD Reviews

SCHUMANN: Liederkreis; Liederkreis; Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers – Gerald Finley, bar./ Julius Drake, p. – Hyperion

Gerald Finley is rapidly becoming Hyperion’s house baritone, and here he turns his eyes towards Schumann’s greatest cycle, with pretty good success.

Published on November 6, 2012

SCHUMANN: Liederkreis; Liederkreis; Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers – Gerald Finley, bar./ Julius Drake, p. – Hyperion

SCHUMANN: Liederkreis, Op. 39; Liederkreis, Op. 24; Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers, Op. 36 – Gerald Finley, baritone/ Julius Drake, piano – Hyperion CDA 67944, 64:30 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:

1840 is Schumann’s “year of song”, so-called because he delved into the form with renewed vigor right before his marriage to Clara, producing over 100 songs during the year. Of course he saw Clara in many of them—he often enclosed coded meanings in his piano music as a way with communicating with her during the days when her father hated the thought of him being married to his daughter, and even ended up taking him to court over the matter; Daddy lost, by the way, and hence the quick marriage before her 21st birthday. But what is even more remarkable is his turning to this particular idiom; he said in 1839 that he never regarded the composition of songs as “great art” and considered it vastly inferior to instrumental music. But with the ability to more directly state his passion for Clara—and the fact that songs were a fine source of easy income—he set himself towards a fat and fast production of them, perhaps never dreaming that his ultimate corpus would rival—and even surpass, in the eyes of many—the achievements of his song master, Franz Schubert.

The two Liederkreis cycles are not meant as a pair, and their titling only incidental. Op. 24, to poems of Heinrich Heine, might be considered a warm-up to the later Op. 39, and are definitely more Schubertian in their exploration of the material, and some of the more extended narrations of the songs. The emotional tone of the songs is also more varied, and a little more cheery. The Op. 39 is to me the greatest cycle Schumann ever composed. The songs texts are taken from Joseph Eichendorff’s collection called Intermezzo, and are thematically unrelated except for the fact that many of them seem to start happy and even carefree but also contain an undercurrent of something darker and more ominous—death, for example. These occurrences are often not words that make up the majority of the poem, and Schumann’s ability to either capture the tone of the whole or to insert musical suggestions of disturbance and unease is quite amazing. None of the songs is especially upbeat in tempo or mood—it reminds me of Winterreise more than anything else Schumann composed.

The third “cycle” here is six songs on texts that are not too inspired by Robert Reinick. Six poems from a painter’s song book is Schumann slumming it, poetry-wise. The texts of patriotism, sentimentality, piety, and homeiness get music far beyond the quality boundaries of the poems, though the cycle is anything but a throwaway, and should be heard more often.

My favorites in the Op. 39 cycle have been by two women, Hyperion’s own Kate Royal (part of the Schumann complete songs cycle) and Bernarda Fink on Harmonia mundi.  Those will stand—though Gerald Finley is accomplished in this music I don’t think his Eichendorff setting holds up as well, and there are moments where he seems to be just skirting the boundaries of “flat” when holding some of his notes, though I don’t think he is—there is something about the way he is singing or the way he was recorded that suggests it. Interpretatively he is very good, nicely introspective, but not as convincing as the ladies.

In Op. 24 he is far better, really at the top of his game. Perhaps the greater variety of the music inspired him to be more attentive to the nuances of the texts. But the feeling and tempo of the cycle is very good, and I found his interpretation uplifting and completely in accord with what I think Schumann intended here. His fine tonal qualities are in evidence to a great degree also. The same can be said of the much lesser and not as important “painter” cycle; Finley moves through it at perfect speed and represents its more limited emotional palate with great finesse, pianist Julius Drake every bit the intricate partner on a recording that captures the two of them very nicely.

—Steven Ritter




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