In the crowded field of international singing stars they don't come much more international than baritone Gerald Finley. He’s graced virtually every major world opera house and concert hall, singing everything from Mozart to Mark-Anthony Turnage, so to secure him and his long time musical partner, the equally starry pianist Julius Drake, to sing in a small parish church in Kent was nothing short of a coup.

Gerald Finley
© IMG Artists

 But then King Charles the Martyr, Tunbridge Wells, is no ordinary church. It’s a perfect example of the English Baroque, with a flamboyant history to match its riotous, meringue-like plaster ceiling. John Evelyn gave money for its construction; Handel played there when he came to take the waters; the imposing clock tower was given by Letitia Fenton, the original Polly Peachum in Gay's Beggar's Opera. Crikey, even the first man to carry an umbrella in England served on the vestry committee.

Today, the church’s director of music, Rupert Preston-Bell has carefully curated a recital series to match this rich heritage. Entitled Music at King Charles it has earned a growing reputation for excellence (harpsichordist Steven Devine and players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will be there in December, for instance). Even so, the Finley/Drake evening promised to outdo everything so far, and it didn’t disappoint.

They chose to open with four Beethoven songs. Finley charmed from the start with Neue Liebe, neues Leben, though he quickly plunged into despair in Wonne de Wehmut, the rich velvet of his middle register darkening and fading into the purest pianissimo. He brought immaculate phrasing to the limpid Mit einem gemalten Band and then real comedy to the tale of a king’s favourite flea, Aus Goethe’s Faust.

The synergy between Finley and Drake was most evident in the selection of Schubert songs that followed, Drake matching Finley’s commanding presence in Prometheus and followed him dreamily in An den Mond. They both brought real pathos to Schäfers Klagelied and terrifying drama to the always-chilling Erlkönig.

Julius Drake
© Marco Borggreve

We glimpsed Finley’s operatic pedigree in Amid the din of the ball, one of four Tchaikovsky songs that opened the second half of the evening. Here he conjured his definitive portrayal of Eugene Onegin to sing this heartbreakingly lovely waltz of yearning love – a far better song than the more popular None but the lonely heart, which sounded strained and overwrought in comparison.

Drake had a real mountain to climb in the choice of a closing set by Rachmaninov, that consummate pianist who seemed to delight in writing the most fiendish accompaniments to all his songs. The burning, intense passion of O stay my love, forsake me not, was nothing to the epic pianism required for Fate, with its grumbling references to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and its chilling depiction of the inevitability of death. Even a simple song about the changing seasons, Spring Torrents, had Drake gambolling around the keyboard like a young lamb. Like the entire evening, it was a joy to witness, and one that audiences in America are soon to enjoy, as the duo embark on a US tour.