Gerald Finley and the Art of Texas Sprechstimme

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From Friday's Inquirer:

If Gerald Finley hadn’t been a bass-baritone, he might have ended up a particularly charismatic storyteller. Of course, as a singer he’s both, but not all vocalists subscribe to his philosophy of primary fidelity to the word.
The Montreal-born Finley, 50, who made his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society debut Wednesday night at the Perelman Theater, has everything a singer’s toolbox needs — a gorgeous instrument, an ear for color, spot-on intonation. But the greater part of his charm, especially in songs of Ravel, Ives, and Barber, comes by way of his large gift for conveying a tale.
Not that the Schumann/Heine songs making up the first half of his recital with pianist Julius Drake were wanting. He shaded his sound specifically to each song, sometimes even within a single piece. In “Belsazar,” he toggled between Wagnerian heroics and more subtle Schubertian text painting. He often modulated his vibrato, and if his sound perhaps grew too bald and cold at one end of the spectrum, he was quick to warm it up again. Sometimes Finley so closely blended with Drake’s left hand in pitch, duration of notes, and even timbre that it constituted a form of mind reading.
Finley’s emotional involvement with Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles was on a different, higher level. Drake set down highly developed mood markers — the lumbering feeling of a peacock’s day, the nervous protestations of a cricket, the sense of time being suspended and breath held as a kingfisher touches down on your fishing pole. Has a musical bestiary ever been rendered more sensually anthropomorphic? Finley slipped into a conversational intimacy, though it worked only because he had the technical command to underline certain words with a whisper of vague pitch or an expansive and exquisitely detailed full-throttle phrase.
In “Charlie Rutledge,” one of five (including an encore) Ives songs, Finley applied a Western accent to sung and spoken words — let’s call it Texas Sprechstimme. The accent worked — and here, and in “The Green-Eyed Dragon” (music Charles Wolseley, words Greatrex Newman), it suddenly seemed that Finley had become a cabaret artist.
In introducing the encore (with its genially suspenseful series of ascending notes beautifully paced by Drake’s left hand), Finley said he does what he does because of John Charles Thomas. The early-20th-century baritone moved among opera, operetta, and Broadway in a career that resisted clear genre classification. Finley, in recital, echoed that great singing needs neat categories no more now than then.

- Peter Dobrin

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