Richard Wigmore
Gramophone
March 2015

If Liszt was not the greatest of 19th-century song-writers, he was arguably the most exploratory and eclectic. Spanning five decades and four languages, the songs on this disc range from the bel canto-inspired lyricism of the Petrarch sonnets—heard here in their more restrained revised versions—via the orchestrally conceived ‘Weimars Toten’ and the colourful Victor Hugo bolero ‘Gastibelza’, to the mingled bareness and harmonic audacity of his late songs. The funereal ‘Und wir dachten der Toten’, commemorating a fallen hero in the Franco-Prussian War, and the laconic Tennyson setting ‘Go not, happy day’ (Liszt’s sole song in English) are typical of the ascetic yet strangely haunting sound world cultivated by the ageing Abbé, as if in atonement for the flamboyant excesses of youth.

The ever-rewarding song partnership of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake are persuasive advocates across the whole spectrum of Lisztian styles. Where theatrical panache is a sine qua non—in the swaggering ‘Gastibelza’ or the melodramatic ballad ‘Die Fischerstochter’—the pair provide it in spades. Finley’s darkly mellow, scrupulously produced baritone has the reserves of power to make something noble of the potentially bombastic ‘Weimars Toten’, while here and elsewhere Drake is a vivid colourist.

Always specific in his responses to verbal sonority and meaning, Finley graphically captures the shades of irony and bitterness in another ballad, ‘Le vieux vagabond’, encompassing with ease its huge vocal range, down to a resonant low E. His mellifluous legato, ardent phrasing and ringing top notes are well displayed in the soaring Italianate lines of the Petrarch sonnets. Drawing on the bass resonances within his baritone, Finley brings a baleful authority to the half-crazed old Harper’s song ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass’, whose obfuscating chromaticism sounds even stranger than Wolf’s setting of 30 years later; and singer and pianist sensitively catch the mix of confiding intimacy and austerity in three epigrammatic settings of Heine, the composer’s one-time friend who coined the term Lisztomania.

Except in the Petrarch songs, Liszt rarely seduces you with ravishing melody. But, as Finley and Drake eloquently demonstrate (a word, too, for Susan Youens’s absorbing booklet-notes), his songs are never less than fascinating, harmonically, pianistically and in their often original approach to word-setting.