One of the most dangerous elements of classical music is complacent, or even lazy, concert programming. It’s all too easy to pair a Beethoven symphony with a Mozart piano concerto in an attempt to attract crowds with famous works, or to more easily showcase a soloist’s skills, without considering whether this might be just a little tired, or putting a little bit of thought into how the works relate to each other. It’s perfectly possible to emerge from a superbly played concert, dazzled by technical brilliance or vocal beauty, but wondering at the lack of daring. What utter joy, then, to see a programme of riveting diversity from bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano at the piano in an excellent recital at the Barbican.

Sir Antonio Pappano and Gerald Finley © Mark Allan | Barbican
Sir Antonio Pappano and Gerald Finley
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Finley comes across as a singer at the peak of vocal fitness and my abiding impression was that he seemed completely comfortable with his voice, well aware of precisely when to push and when to relax; confident in technique and supported by an instinctive musicality. As a recitalist, he gives a distinct air of affability that’s rather appealing – no oily chumminess that makes one want to squirm in one’s seat, nor an unwelcoming chilliness, but a confident good humour that expressed itself in a joke in the middle of the the first half about the difficulties of a programme that reflected the heritage of the Italian pianist, born in Essex and raised in Connecticut, and the Canadian of Scottish ancestry. It’s also worth noting Finley’s very obvious lack of sheet music, always a reassuring sign that promises an assured performance.

Finley’s approach strikes an equal balance between vocal technique and textual focus, and there’s an obvious appreciation for the character of each individual song, made clear in the opening set of four songs by Beethoven. He conjured up the serious, almost devotional tone of Adelaide – hushing the voice solemnly, but losing nothing through expert projection that caught every syllable – and then went on to close the set with the playful, flirtatious Der Kuss, lingering in mock passion, melodramatically slowing and drawing the audience into his lechery before cheerfully bouncing on. The higher register for which he is well-known, unusually bright and open, shows no sign of diminishing, at one point as light as silk in “I vidi in terra angelici costumi” from Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets, compositional offspring of his intense relationship with Marie d’Agoult, inspired by the equally passionate, but unreciprocated love of Petrarch for the mysterious Laura. The highlight of the first half, though, was the splendid set of Four Scottish Airs by Respighi, where Finley’s gift for characterisation really bloomed, the voice coloured with images of pale Scottish highland, losing nothing in clarity of diction, despite some rather intense Scottish dialect.

Four languages – five if you separate the Scottish songs – were sung with careful attention to the cadences of the pronunciation. Finley showed his capacity for black, cynical wit in Shostakovich’s Six Romances on Verses by English Poets, composed in 1942 and banned in 1948 for their tones of dissidence. The sheer rebellious genius of his adaptation of The Grand Old Duke of York into the four-lined “The King’s Campaign”  is a marvel and found bleak expression in Finley’s tart delivery. A selection of songs by Tosti, without whom no British recital can proceed, was delivered with lyrical clarity, smooth legato and full phrasing on display, quickly glossing over, perhaps sadly, the discordant acidity of the Shostakovich.

Pappano was a sensitive accompanist, entirely attuned to Finley and offering flair without ever upstaging him. If this artistic partnership can continue to produce such fascinating selections of music, there will be some interesting evenings to come.

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