Better on Paper? Gerald Finley’s Winterreise, Kirill Gerstein’s Piano Recital in Boston

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Viktor Hartmann (1834–1873), Paris Catacombs, Mussorgsky's subject for one of the episodes in Pictures at an Exhibition.

Viktor Hartmann (1834–1873), Paris Catacombs, Mussorgsky’s subject for one of the episodes in Pictures at an Exhibition.

I can’t think of any musical event this season I was more looking forward to than Canadian baritone Gerald Finley singing Schubert’s Winterreise at Jordan Hall (February 7), and I’d been almost equally excited about hearing Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein return to Boston for a full length Jordan Hall piano recital (January 31). Both concerts were sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston, and both sounded great on paper.

Twenty years ago, at 14, Gerstein became the youngest student ever to attend the Berklee College of Music, where he studied jazz. Just over a year ago, he made a huge impression playing Prokofiev’s exuberant and jazzy single-movement First Piano Concerto led by Thomas Adès with the BSO, and then, at a BSO Chamber Music concert, joined Adès at the keyboard in a stunning performance of Beethoven’s own four-hand piano transcription of his Grosse Fuge string quartet movement. Finley, at 54, is in his prime as a singing actor. He was outstanding as the tormented Golaud in the BSO’s memorable Pelléas et Mélisande with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and as Oppenheimer in the Met production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, conveying the hero’s obsessiveness and ethical turmoil, and projecting the nuanced paradoxes of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “Batter my heart”—allegedly Oppenheimer’s favorite poem—like a great Lieder singer. He riveted the Tanglewood audience in John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5, singing Czesław Miłosz’s long poem about Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice.

Both artists received warm ovations, but also divided their audiences. I was frustrated by Gerstein. And bored by Finley. This was not what I expected, and I’m still pondering my disappointments.

Winterreise is Schubert’s—maybe anybody’s—greatest song cycle. Using 24 short poems by Wilhelm Müller, it tells a simple sad story of a young man who can no longer stay in his village when the girl he loves decides to marry a rich man instead. But both Müller and Schubert had bigger fish to fry. Winterreise is post-Shakespeare (Lear on the blasted heath) and proto-Beckett—this tragic wanderer is living an existential nightmare. There is no place on earth where he can be happy. Wherever he looks, he can find only signs of betrayal and isolation. A weathervane spinning in the wind. Crows hovering overhead. A cemetery like an inn that refuses to accommodate him. Dogs growling in their sleep. His discovery that his beard looks gray only because it is covered in snow makes him even sadder that he is not closer to death.

When you listen to the great performances—Hans Hotter, Peter Pears (accompanied by Benjamin Britten), Lotte Lehman, Ernst Haefliger, Mitsuko Shirai (whose devastating interpretation sent her listeners at Harvard’s Houghton Library out into the night shaken and shaking), James Maddalena (accompanied by Craig Smith), and now possibly Jonas Kaufmann (from the clips I’ve heard of his new recording)—you immediately hear the pain in the singer’s voice, and eventually the multiple aspects of that pain. Finley always sounded beautiful—but only beautiful. He’s an intelligent reader of words; his singing was completely honest; and he never seemed out to prove anything. But there was more lethargy than urgency; his dark voice didn’t rise to a tragic dimension. Up until the very last song, he never seemed a character—just an artful recitalist sympathetically reporting these experiences rather than living them. He himself never suffered what the narrator was suffering, never managed to convey the pervasive undercurrent of suffering behind every note. Of course, he looked and sounded sad, but at the many slower-than-usual tempos that Finley and the expressive pianist Julius Drake chose, it was all so unvariedly lugubrious it became inert. With the exception of the exuberant (falsely exuberant) defiance of “Mut” (courage), near the end of the cycle, the performers missed Schubert’s own kaleidoscopically mercurial sense of constantly changing variations on sadness—despair, rage, bitterness, defiance, self-delusion, resignation, irony, thoughts of suicide, glazed immobility, philosophical acceptance. Parts of Winterreise can even be funny. (This was one of the joys of Three Pianos, the engaging play about Winterreise that ART brought to Cambridge in 2011.)

There are moments in the cycle when the hero is deluded by a feeling of optimism—he’s convinced, for example, that he’s about to receive a letter from his beloved (“Die Post”); when the letter doesn’t arrive, he’s plunged into despair again. This dramatic shift within a single song never quite came to life. Finley never seemed to truly believe the letter would come, so his inevitable disappointment wasn’t particularly devastating.

But there was one crucial moment when Finley finally came fully to life, and that was the last song, “Der Leiermann” (the hurdy-gurdy man), where he seemed really stunned by what he’d been through, and sees in the old musician standing shoeless on the ice, surrounded by snarling dogs, his plate for coins empty, the perfect companion for his winter journey and the perfect accompanist for his suffering. What is left except to turn suffering into art? That one spark of hope against hopelessness suddenly clicked this song into a third dimension the others lacked. I’m eager to see if this admirable artist will grow further into this role.

*

Kirill Gerstein ended up with a better batting average. His program was mainly an unusual and thoughtful variety of variations: Haydn’s jewel-like and poignant Variations in F Minor, Schumann’s exuberant and poetic Carnaval (autobiography as commedia dell’arte), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a tour through an art gallery showing a wide range of drawings and watercolors by Mussorgsky’s artist friend Viktor Hartmann, who had died suddenly at the age of 39. Gerstein also played the Boston premiere of Old Friend, a challenging new piece the under-thirty composer Timothy Andres wrote for him.

Things didn’t start so well. Haydn’s delicate, touching set of Variations, so rarely performed these days, seemed a little flatly expressed and perhaps a little too fast. Maybe Gerstein would be more in gear for the Schumann. But Carnaval was even less successful—too rushed and percussive (too Russian?). Not pounding (Gerstein doesn’t have to stoop to that), but with more emphasis on accent than on flow, on chords rather than on Schumann’s bewitching melodies. Carnaval is piece of infinite charm, like one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, but Gerstein seemed to be playing it as anti-poetry—grand in some ways, but un-insinuating and rhetorical. Several of these “little scenes on four notes” are love letters to Schumann’s beloved Clara (whom he teasingly calls “Chiarina”). But they didn’t seem to have much affection in them. Or humor. This airless Carnaval never really breathed. 

The Andres piece was a short, very sophisticated, technically skillful concoction, ranging all over the keyboard balancing extreme lows against extreme highs, with dramatically contrasting speeds and dynamics, first loud and vigorous, then quiet and delicate. Gerstein’s exquisite playing of the final high notes seemed to dissolve into the air. But there were more chords and arpeggios than thematic material, so sound effects seemed more the point than musical ideas. At least, that’s how it struck me on a first hearing.

But the Mussorgsky was suddenly better—maybe because Gerstein could relax after Andres’s technical demands. This performance was also more horizontal than vertical, emphasizing the act of moving—“promenading”—from picture to picture, each of the Promenades demonstrating a different quality: eagerness, introspection, melancholy, even eerie chills. The musical depictions of the pictures themselves—heavy Gnomus, the playful Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, the hectic Market at Limoges—had plenty of character. In Samuel Goldenberg & Schmuyle, Gerstein endowed but both the rich Jew and he poor Jewish beggar with some element of dignity The Tuileries section, with its children’s games, had all the charm that was missing in the Schumann. And if the whole piece didn’t sweep to its climactic depiction of The Great Gate of Kiev, it was nevertheless a gripping museum tour.

Lloyd Schwartz

About Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of three poetry collections and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and, most recently, The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Dr. Schwartz’s writing also appears in our sister publication, The Berkshire Review for the Arts, especially in the summer, when he visits Tanglewood and other festivals in the Berkshires. Click here for a list of them.

2 Comments

  1. Susan Heideman

    Among the great live performances of Winterreise should be added Thomas Quasthoff’s. I heard him sing this remarkable song cycle a number of years ago. I now can’t remember whether it was in Amsterdam or Boston, but it was one of the most extraordinary, heart-wrenching musical experiences I’ve ever had. His announcement of a couple of years ago that he was retiring from singing owing to physical problems with his voice broke my heart. Interestingly, I just heard on NPR that based on the changes in his voice he has now taken up acting. That is not really a surprise, given the extraordinary power with which he embodied the wanderer in Schumann’s incomparable work.

    Much as I admire Gerald Finley, I finally decided not to attend this performance, in part because I was convinced it could not match Quasthoff’s. However, I expected to regret my decision. Now I don’t feel quite so bad, although I too hope he grows into this role.

  2. Lloyd SchwartzLloyd Schwartz (Post author)

    Shame on me for forgetting Quasthoff’s wonderful performance (accompanied by James Levine, February 2008 at Symphony Hall, not usually an ideal venue for an intimate lieder recital). Here’s how I summed it up in my Boston Phoenix review: “The performance was quietly devastating. Yet in its beauty and inwardness and human understanding, also exalting.”

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