The renowned, Montreal-born Finley partners here with English pianist Julius Drake in performances of the two Robert Schumann cycles tided Liederkreis ("Song Cycle"), op. 39 and op. 24. The composer penned both cycles in 1840, a year that saw him complete an astonishing 168 songs. Most were inspired by his passion for Clara Wieck, whom he married that year just a day before her 21st birthday and after a long legal battle with her father, Schumann's former teacher, Friedrich Wieck.
Writing to Clara, Schumann called the Op. 39 collection, set to poems by Joseph von Eichendorff, "my most romantic music ever, with much of you in it, dearest Clara." Essen-daily a series of vignettes on such themes as loss, loneliness and reverie, the work does not have the type of narrative thread found in the classic song cycle, but continuity is achieved through several recurring motifs. The cycle contains some of the composer's greatest songs, including the haunting "In der Fremde," the poignant "Mondnacht" and the triumphant "Fruhlingsnacht."
As well as being a true opera star, Finley is a natural Lieder singer, serving up a beautiful, rounded baritone and relating these mini dramas with great panache. Some highlights include his lovely lower register in "Waldesgesprach," the tenderness of "Zwielicht" and the gentle, perfectly sustained lines of "Wehmut."
The less frequently heard Op. 24 Liederkreis consists of nine songs set to texts by Heinrich Heine, Schumann's favorite poet during that time. They deal with frustrated or lost love, fears that were very real for Robert and Clara during their struggles with her father's efforts to end their relationship. (Wieck saw Schumann as a childish, poverty-stricken drunk.) Finley is very effective in communicating the range of emotions in the rocking "Schone Wiege meiner Leiden," one of Schumann's loveliest creations, and in conjuring the image of a raging sea in "Wane, warte, wilder Schiffmann."
As a substantial filler, we are also given the rarely heard six-song cycle Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuth eines Malers, to verses by a very minor poet, Robert Reinick. But there are some musical gems here, including the cheeky "Serenade," in which the protagonist coaxes his lover to run away and elope (as Robert and Clara had dreamt of doing) and "Dichters Genesung," a masterfully shaped song perfectly paced by Finley and Drake. Drake is a first-rate accompanist throughout, ably playing with the frequent suspensions and always impressive in the delectable codas that sometimes conclude Schumann's Lieder.