A critic has to be careful with superlatives, but it doesn’t take much throwing of caution to the warm summer wind to declare that Ottawa-born bass-baritone Gerald Finley’s Koerner Hall recital for the Toronto Summer Music Festival on Wednesday night was the personification of vocal perfection.
The programme presented a neat blend of 19th century German-language Lieder (by Carl Loewe, Robert Schumann and Edvard Grieg), English ballad (courtesy of Arthur Sullivan and Cyrill Scott) and 20th century arrangements of English folk songs by Benjamin Britten — with an encore foray into the American songbook, courtesy of Cole Porter.
Accompanied by the Aldeburgh Connection’s Stephen Ralls, Finley presented each piece as a self-sufficient musical and textual narrative.
It helps that the singer has been blessed with a bountiful, flexible, rich-timbred voice, sustained by remarkable breath control and wielded with a keen sense of dramatic flair.
Another natural advantage was the exquisite musical craftsmanship of each song on the programme, staring with Loewe’s setting of Goethe’s Erl-King, to Britten’s jewels of folksy understatement. All showed off their composer’s keen ear for sketching mood and colouring each vowel with just the right harmonies, melodies and rhythms.
Finley polished off the lot with flawless diction and an unerring sense of detail for placing each note, shaping each phrase and timing each pause to complement the meaning and atmosphere of each song.
Such is the depth of Finley’s craft that, rather than having all this hard work come off sounding mannered or studied, the singer imbued each song with the breath and movement of spontaneiety.
One could only sit back and bask in such musical goodness.
If there was one quibble about Wednesday’s recital, it was Ralls’ initial reticence to fully plumb the possibilities of the accompaniments during the German portion of the programme. But once the English songs came due, the pianist switched from modest sidekick to confident co-conspirator in shaping each piece.
The performers had their audience in the proverbial palms of their hands from the very beginning, but Finley made sure to show how he was enjoying this concert date as much as his listeners in the encore, The Tale of the Oyster, which, with Cole Porter’s help, reminded everyone that pretense has no place in connecting eager ears with graciously and diligently prepared sound.
This truly is as close to perfection as Schubert’s Holy Art can get.