Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Songs of Travel" wend through the English countryside with a resolve that seems a little quaint a century later, and the texts by Robert Louis Stevenson summon familiar impressions that modernism has all but buried: "Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours. Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood." Can we ever believe this stuff?
We can revel in it, but it takes a singer with a voice of velvet-lined steel, blazing conviction and artistry that jars immediate recognition from lines like "Bright is the ring of words when the right man rings them." That man is baritone Gerald Finley, who opened his recital Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater with such bold confidence that it was immediately clear this would be no ordinary songfest. The pleasure of the "Songs of Travel" was surely "thick as stars at night." The Canadian baritone ranged easily from manly brawn to silken tenderness, and his emotional connection with the music was radiant with intelligence and deeply expressive simplicity.
As the recital moved to the rarefied world of Benjamin Britten's settings of 14 Songs and Proverbs by William Blake, Finley raised the stakes sky-high. Finley asked the members of the audience for their full attention to the "moral maze" and almost unbearably "intense experience" about to confront them, and pointed out that his collaborator -- pianist Julius Drake -- would be supplying critically important animal imagery. What then ensued was genius -- Blake's and Britten's -- so authoritatively melded by Finley and Drake that music and poetry constituted a single vision of overwhelming power and comprehension. Blake's "little fly" drew whirling life from Finley's furious musicality and impeccable diction, but also buzzed and fluttered as a creature repeatedly launched from Drake's exquisitely calibrated keyboard interjections. The "fearful symmetry" of Blake's "Tyger burning bright in the forests of the night" did indeed twist the heart, and the transformation of Blake's "poison tree" from irritation to wrathful vengeance was extravagantly dramatic, harrowing and painfully relevant.
After this, Finley's gorgeous explorations of four sensuous songs by Henri Duparc revealed a singer who can project stillness without losing the shape and body of his sound, and who can scale his voice to softness bordering on silence without crooning or breaks in register. "Luxe, calme et volupte" (abundance, calm, pleasure for the senses) had the liquid texture of a complex French wine, and lingers in the mind as good wine lingers on the palate.
Five songs from Samuel Barber's "Melodies Passageres" were as finely wrought. The bleak cheer of Noel Coward's "I Travel Alone" was perfectly gauged, and Finley teased the melodrama of Louis Emanuel's "The Desert" to what seemed its absolute limit, then kicked it hilariously over the top.
This recital, incredibly, marks Finley's Washington debut. The Vocal Arts Society should get him back, and he must bring Julius Drake with him.