Editor’s Choice, Vocal & Choral – August 2015

When one considers Franz Liszt’s rapacious appetite for poetic stimulation, the exalted literary circles in which he moved and his inexhaustible creative drive, it should come as no surprise that he composed over 70 songs, although only a handful will be familiar to most lieder-philes. That may change thanks to this third volume of Hyperion’s latest project in the label’s seeming aim to record the entire art-song repertoire and the bringing on board of Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley will broaden its appeal. 

The album spans some 50 years of Liszt’s career and demonstrates his wide ranging polyglot tastes and searching intellectual curiosity for source material. His harmonic and formal invention can veer from the exploratory to the mundane, but when taken on its own terms and delivered with this level of dramatic intensity it makes for a haunting 75 minutes. 

Finley takes these songs by the scruff of the neck and gives them all the dramatic gesture and flair he can muster. The Petrarch Sonnets are here, but heard in the substantially revised second edition for low voice, their austere profile casting a darker shadow than the familiar soaring soprano version. The cruelly exposed vocal line is known to strike fear into the heart of most baritones but Finley confidently strides across the high-wire with only the barest tremor. 

Weimars Toten is a strange beast but compelling if you can accept those tacky right-hand tremolandi. Gastibelza, based on a Hugo poem, is a wacky piece of Spanish caricature with schizoid outbursts and grumblings – here Finley does occasionally seem a little careful and tightly buttoned. Le Vieux Vagabond just outstays its welcome despite the performers’ efforts. 

The gems here are the group of works in Liszt’s late style with their austere textures and their unstable and ambiguous harmonies as befits their death-haunted texts. The recital concludes with the strangest of them Go not, happy day from Tennyson’s Maud. Yes, Liszt setting an English text – curiouser and curiouser! 

Julius Drake provides finely-honed accompaniments with bell-like sonorities and bold but unflashy gestures. Recorded with Hyperion’s usual clarity and presence, and documented with the exemplary programme notes one expects from this label, this is a mandatory purchase for hardcore Lisztians and a tempting diversion for anyone with an interest in the byways of the vocal repertoire.