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Winterreise, by Franz Schubert

Gerald Finley, baritone

Stephen Ralls, piano

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At Walter Hall

In Toronto on Thursday

The 24 songs of Franz Schubert's Winterreise, to poems of Wilhelm Mueller, abide as their composer's strangest and most trenchant work. On the one hand they converge in a powerful unity, the utterance of a single human creature broken by unrequited love, alienated from other humans, persisting outward and alone in a grim and frozen landscape. On the other hand they set forth a stunning variety of musical vignettes as the poet/singer strives to express the whole range of his anguish, his isolation and his ever-increasing alienation, in songs of unsurpassed singularity, each one fresh against the others and each one peculiarly sensitive, vivid and memorable.

In all the others of Schubert's phenomenal output of nearly 600 songs, this greatest of song composers nowhere else achieved this breathtaking variety within so complete a dynamic unity. You feel that here, at last (and Winterreise was virtually his last work; he was proofreading the second 12 songs on his deathbed), all Schubert's guiles and graces are laid aside, the kid gloves are off, and his unvarnished soul is prepared to grapple for your attention.

Needless to say, such a work requires nothing less than total immersion from its singer and pianist. They must be not just vocally able to meet the individual demands of each song. In addition they must penetrate, understand and convey the deep psychological unease and the gradually increasing remoteness of the blighted protagonist as he retreats further and further from life.

I've now had the privilege of hearing three major Canadian singers give their first public performances of this extraordinary work. Mezzo-soprano Lois Marshall was 52 in 1976 when she sang it with pianist Anton Kuerti at Hart House. Tenor Jon Vickers was 53 in 1979 when he sang it with pianist Richard Woitach at the Guelph Spring Festival. Baritone Gerald Finley, most recent and youngest to attempt it, sang it with Stephen Ralls Thursday night at Walter Hall.

Finley and Ralls joined the earlier two, by turning in a performance that, like theirs, will long shine in the memory.

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Doubtless overworked these days, like other singers of his exceptional calibre, Finley was not in his best voice in the first half of the cycle.

Gorgeous singing was slightly marred here and there, usually during a sudden Schubertian reach from middle range to an upper note -- as in the final phrases of the seventh song, Auf dem Flusse ( On the River). And the 12th song had to be stopped and begun again after a memory lapse.

Against these minor matters, the communication of each song, as it came, in all its particular beauties and torments, was absolutely enthralling.

Finley's voice is not just beautiful in itself, virile and ample at the bottom, fine-spun at the top, it is also capable of accommodating meanings and expressing feelings, subtly changing its complexion to achieve these.

The second half of the cycle -- in which reference to the faithless beloved is virtually gone, and the protagonist is driven further away from reality and more morbidly in upon himself -- was superbly managed by the team.

Finley's vocal blemishes had vanished and his customary ease of delivery was restored. Several of the songs -- Der greise Kopf ( The Grey Head), Die Krähe ( The Crow), Der Wegweiser ( The Signpost) and Die Nebensonnen ( The Phantom Suns) -- were as eloquent and moving as I can imagine them. And the final Der Leiermann ( The Organ Grinder), that miracle on a drone bass, was perfection.

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Stephen Ralls, impeccable as usual, was on this occasion more: full partner in a profound grasp of this peerless song cycle.

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