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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Purcell, Tippett, Finzi, Wigglesworth, Warlock, Gurney, Britten: James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Wigmore Hall, 26 May, 2005 (AO)



James Gilchrist is in great demand in oratorios and ensemble, but his solo work is seldom heard in London. Perhaps this concert and his new CD of Finzi songs (to be reviewed shortly) will put him in the limelight he deserves. Despite his background in the baroque, his way with words makes him a natural for English song. Hence the programme started with Purcell.


But what a contrast! Tippett and Bergmann’s arrangements of Music for a While and If music be the Food of Love went self consciously for Elizabethan effects. Versimilitude, however, without insight is pointless. These songs were written for lighter keyboards than piano. As a result, Tilbrook sounded heavy handed and intrusive, even though the problem lay in the score, not her playing. Britten’s arrangement of O Solitude, on the other hand, avoided musical mock Tudor. The much leaner piano part was far more sensitive to the voice and the song as a whole. It sounds more like music, than pastiche. Gilchrist was able to stylishly decorate words like “adore”, unhampered by cloying accompaniment.


If the jury is still out on Tippett, his Boyhood’s End is an undoubted masterpiece. It sets a marvellously written piece of prose by W H Hudson. Written in old age, it harks back to his youth in South America. Plants and birds are minutely observed, and the sensual experience of living in a kind of exotic Eden is described intensely. Here, Tippett lets the words express themselves: the piano part is almost minimalist, deceptively subtle. It is a virtuoso piece, for the singer has to carry the prose line convincingly as speech, yet express the circular, musical line as it twists and turns. Phrasing is critical, but Gilchrist carries legato very well. This is fiendishly difficult to sing – the recording by Peter Pears, for whom it was written, does not show Pears in good form. Martyn Hill and, more recently, Mark Padmore, sing impeccably, but Gilchrist has the edge in that he adds a sharp directness to his diction which brings out the inherent drama in this remarkable text. When he almost whispers “oh, those wild beautiful cries of the golden plover!” you can feel the excitement. And when he sings “to climb trees and put my hand in the deep hot nest of the Biente-veo and feel the hot eggs – the five long pointed cream coloured eggs with chocolate spots”, the way he sings “deep”, “hot” and “nest” draws you into the intimacy of the nest, so you can almost see the eggs he describes. Gilchrist thus creates a sense of immediacy which makes the pervading sense of paradise lost all the more painful. The final line “floating in that immense shining void!” was masterful, each word lovingly shaped and rounded, and “void” floating off ending equivocally.


Perhaps something of Gilchrist’s approach to these words is indicated by the poster he placed in the foyer. He had tracked down ornithological details about the Biente-veo bird. That level of preparation, and the fact that he shares it with his audience is definitely not a sign of dumbing down!

Gilchrist’s recent recording for Linn Records features the songs of Gerald Finzi. Till Earth Outwears is a posthumous collection of Hardy settings, including the well-loved In Years Defaced. Here Gilchrist brought out inner patterns in the whole, such as the pair of emphases, “sun and shadow” and “gust and gale”. Neither Finzi nor Hardy were inevitably great so The Market Girl is embarrassingly awful. At a Lunar Eclipse, too, is a bland shadow of the remarkable Comet at Yell’ham, with curious echoes of Channel Firing in the piano introduction. Gilchrist’s unsentimental style makes these songs work believably and even sound modern. If English song is to thrive in this new century, this direct, unfussy approach will help.


Ryan Wigglesworth describes his new work, from the vale of restles mynd as a “crossover” between medieval secular and devotional modes. I thought “more early Maxwell Davies?” but it was not. If anything, it recalls Britten, with its plaintive, twisting voice part and discreet accompaniment. It’s a long piece, sung in Middle English, with exotic turns of phrasing both verbal and musical. The chorus in Lovely ter of lovely eye is rather nice but repeated five times spoiled its impact. It’s a showpiece for demonstrating technique, so it won’t come quickly into the mainstream repertoire.


Peter Warlock and Ivor Gurney were similarly complex personalities. Gilchrist and Tilbrook presented their settings of John Fletcher’s Sleep, the first tortured, the second sublime. Britten’s Auden settings, On this Island, was a good vehicle for Gilchrist’s gift of trenchant irony. From the overwrought fanfares in Let the Florid Music Play, Britten is sending up the comfortable middle class vision of Albion. Gilchrist manages to be both deadpan and dramatic at the right times, even giving the word “water” a wittily exaggerated mellisima, and capturing the almost maniacal tango in As it is, plenty.


Anne Ozorio



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