Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International
August 2015

Hyperion has made a speciality of complete cycles of great Lieder composers' works. The starting point was the mammoth Schubert cycle supervised and masterminded by Graham Johnson and several other series have followed suit. They don’t rush but let things develop at a manageable pace. The first disc of the seven-CD Richard Strauss cycle was reviewed at MusicWeb International by Terry Barfoot in May 2005, and the last disc I reviewed in July 2015. The Liszt cycle started in February 2010 and I had the honour to review volume 1 in March the following year (review). Volume 2 followed a year later, reviewed this time by John France in August 2012 (review). Both discs were highly regarded.

After tenor Matthew Polenzani and mezzo-soprano Angelica Kirchschlager we get bass-baritone Gerald Finley in volume 3. Here is another important song interpreter who seems ideally suited to the songs he—or Hyperion—has chosen. He recently issued a highly successful Winterreise, also with Julius Drake at the piano. The Schubert cycle is probably the Everest of the Lieder repertoire, which requires so much of the singer—not only vocally but also interpretatively. But the Liszt songs are also demanding, so diverse in styles and languages. In the present volume there are songs in German, Italian, French and a single song in English: a setting of Tennyson. Finley is an excellent linguist—almost a necessity today for those on the international opera circuit—and his enunciation of the text is beyond criticism—an absolute necessity for a Lieder singer. He has a naturally beautiful voice, and even though he is today well past 50 there are no detectable blemishes—in spite of his taking on some really heavy roles. He has sung Hans Sachs for instance. A beautiful voice is in itself good but no guarantee of its possessor being a good Lieder singer. In fact Gerald Finley knows exactly how to use it to achieve the effects he wants. He can spin a thin thread of tone at pianissimo while still maintaining a firm grip on the text. On the other hand he can fill the recording venue or the concert hall/opera house with a wealth of rich and powerful baritone sonorities to match even Hans Hotter. He can express authority as well as vulnerability with the same ease.

The first three songs to texts by Heine are among his best and are rather well known. They also illustrate the problem with Liszt’s songs—if it is a problem—that he was an inveterate reviser and re-starter. Among his seventy-plus songs a great number exist in several versions and some in more than one setting. Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (tr. 1) is here presented in its third version and Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen (tr. 3) in its fourth version, while this setting of Ein Fichtenbaum (tr. 2) is the second one. Often they differ quite a lot but it is not necessarily the case that one version is an improvement on another. It is more a change of aesthetics. One of the interesting things about following this series is the possibility of comparing versions. It would have been easier if the various versions of a specific song had been on adjacent tracks. As it is one has to jump from one disc to another. For pedagogical reasons the ideal layout of a complete cycle would be to present the songs in strictly chronological order, and where several versions exist they would have been grouped together. I imagine that one reason for not choosing that principle is that the outcome wouldn’t make for very satisfying recitals for continuous listening.

The long Weimars Toten (tr. 4) is a setting of a poem by Franz von Schober, Schubert’s friend, whose An die Musik is one of Schubert’s masterpieces. In the 1840s Schober and Liszt were friends. The song was composed in 1848 and was published in a volume celebrating the centenary of Goethe’s birth. The song is, after a long and bombastic piano introduction, a toast to the famous literary greats of Weimar, Wieland, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, to inspire the citizens of the city to create a ‘new dawn’ for poetry. The song itself is rather bombastic but it is a brilliant piece for Gerald Finley to expose his wide vocal and emotional scope.

The three Petrarch Sonnets are masterworks in whichever version you choose. The second version, which Finley sings here, is sparser than the initial version, sung by Matthew Polenzani in volume 1. It reflects the still young composer’s emotions whereas the second embodies the reflections of a middle-aged man. They were not published until 1883, three years before Liszt's demise. Finley is masterly here. I don’t believe I have heard I’ vidi in terra angelici costume sung with such restrained intensity ever.

Die Fischerstochter (tr. 9), with its chilling dissonances, is deeply gripping as also is Und wir dachte, der Toten, one of Liszt’s last songs, completed in 1884. The two Victor Hugo settings are fascinating. Gastibelza, a bolero from 1844, where the piano paints a broad canvas of colours is one of those works that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. La tombe et la rose from the same year is more restrained but equally personal. In both songs the pianist has his hands full and following the piano part is an adventure in itself.

Le vieux vagabond, another large-scale ballad, sets the singer’s vocal range a severe test. Gerald Finley passes with flying colours. Finally we reach Go not, happy day, written by Liszt’s senior by two years, Alfred Lord Tennyson, who survived him by six. The song ends tantalizingly in mid-air, another example of the ageing master searching new and untrodden paths.

With the versatile Julius Drake at the piano any singer can be assured that he/she has the best possible support and the rapport between Finley and Drake feels like twin-souls working together. Excellent recording, excellent liner notes by Susan Young. Couldn’t be better.

The first volume in this series was praised to the skies by most critics including myself. The second, which I recently bought but haven’t had time to listen to yet, also had rave reviews and here is the third, which only confirms The Guardian’s verdict: ‘One of the most important recording projects of recent years.’ Now we eagerly await the next instalment.