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Cheltenham Festival 2008 (4): James Gilchrist (tenor); The Schubert Ensemble, Pittville Pump Room 8. 7.2008 (JQ)

Music by Martin Butler, Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Antonín Dvořák

Martin Butler: Sequenza Notturna
Percy Grainger: Songs for tenor and piano

The Power of Love

Lord Maxwell’s Goodnight


Brigg Fair

Ralph Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge
Antonín Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A Op. 81

The Schubert Ensemble is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year and they made a welcome return to the Cheltenham Festival, bringing with them a varied programme.

They have a reputation for championing contemporary music and, indeed, have commissioned more than eighty new pieces over the years. The work by Martin Butler was written for them and they premièred it in 2003. Its inclusion in this programme was appropriate because, as violinist Simon Blendis told us before the concert began, they’d given the first performance of American Rounds, an earlier piece written for them by Butler, in this very hall at the Cheltenham Festival of 1998. This more recent piece is dedicated to the memory of Luciano Berio, who died in 2003.

Mr Blendis told us that Sequenza Notturna contains “folk-like rhythms and melodies” and he and his colleagues have detected a variety of influences, including Turkish, Spanish and Middle Eastern music. At a first hearing I couldn’t really pick out many of these though the more vigorous central section of the work put me in mind of Romanian music and of Bartok at times. The work, which is for piano quartet, begins very quietly with bell-like piano sounds and quiet string harmonics. The viola melody that emerges eventually, and which is taken up gradually by other instruments, seems to have a Middle Eastern flavour to it. After the more energetic central section the music returns to the quiet, crepuscular musings from which it emerged.

I must be honest and say that I wasn’t terribly impressed by this piece, certainly not at a first hearing. I couldn’t really discern what the composer was “getting at” – I didn’t find his brief programme note about the piece a great deal of help, I fear. I suspect that it needs someone more attuned than am I to modern chamber music. It’s only fair to say that I met four discerning friends in the interval and they’d all enjoyed it more than I had.

I was much more taken with the performance of the Dvořák Quintet, which formed the second half of the programme. In the first movement the performers tapped the lyrical vein of Dvořák’s muse very effectively but they also conveyed the strength of the music. They made the piece sound like Brahms in Bohemia, which I think is absolutely right. I especially relished the drive and sweep that they brought to the closing pages.

The second movement, called ‘Dumka’ (lament), is quite extensive. In it Dvořák intersperses passages of quicker music into the frame of a gently poignant main idea. I liked the way the Schubert Ensemble put across the more melancholy music without overstating the case and their integration of the faster sections within the overall structure was impressive.

I thought they brought out the gaiety and energy of the scherzo quite delightfully. The rhythms were sharply etched and the music danced along, though there was also grace and charm in the trio. As for the vivacious finale, the enjoyment of the players as they played this outgoing music was clear to see. In summary they gave a fresh and enjoyable performance of this fine piece of chamber music and their playing fully justified the warm reception. The one criticism I have – and this applied to On Wenlock Edge also – is that the second violin player was seated in such a way that she was all but obscured by the first violinist. Had he been seated just a few inches further back it would have made all the difference. As it was, from my seat very near the front and almost level with the violinists, I could scarcely hear the second player.

If, during the interval, I disagreed with my friends as to the merits of the piece by Martin Butler there was no disagreement at all between us over the excellence of the performances in which James Gilchrist had been involved during the first half.

First he gave us a quartet of songs by Percy Grainger, in which he was splendidly accompanied by William Howard, the pianist of the Schubert Ensemble. Opening with what he described as Grainger’s “astonishingly enigmatic” song, The Power of Love, his exquisite and beautifully controlled head voice was evident in the first verse – what a demanding opening to a recital! – while the steel and power in his voice were used to full effect in the louder, dramatic repetition of the stanza.

Gilchrist introduced the remaining songs in a witty yet thoughtful way, which must have enhanced the audience’s appreciation of them. His account of Lord Maxwell’s Goodnight was dramatic and highly involving and he gave a very intense reading of the short but “extremely uneasy” Dedication. Finally, we heard a superb rendition of Brigg Fair in an arrangement by Gilchrist and William Howard of Grainger’s original for tenor and unaccompanied chorus. I thought this worked very well indeed.

The whole ensemble came together for Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge. This was the piece to which I’d been looking forward most keenly on the basis of Gilchrist’s superb 2006 recording of the work for Linn Records (CKD 296). On disc he was accompanied by his regular recital pianist, Anna Tilbrook, and the Fitzwilliam Quartet but his partnership here with the Schubert Ensemble was every bit as good and my expectations were fully met – indeed, they were exceeded. The only cause for regret was that some members of the audience applauded after each of the first few songs, thereby vitiating, at least in part, the atmosphere so skilfully built up by the performers. You would have thought that the people concerned would have realised after the first song, when most of the audience stayed quiet, that applause was unwelcome but the penny didn’t drop for some people until after the third song!

But even that lack of consideration for others could only mar slightly a superb performance of these Vaughan Williams songs. The first song, ‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’, was immensely dramatic. One could almost feel the chilly wind blasts conjured up by the players while Gilchrist’s singing was tremendously ardent. This riveting performance was followed by a superbly controlled account of ‘From far, from eve and morning’, In this hushed, inward piece Gilchrist gave a wonderful exhibition of the use of the head voice. His physical gestures, while not overdone, were as expressive as was his singing.

In ‘Is my team ploughing’ Housman constructs a dialogue between the dead young man and his friend who has outlived him. The marvellously withdrawn way in which Gilchrist portrayed the dead man touched the heart while the survivor’s responses were ardent and manly – at first. But the dialogue becomes more impassioned in the last two stanzas, starting at “Is my friend hearty?” Here Gilchrist invested the words of the dead young man with more passion. But it was the last verse that really brought home the point of the poem. Through his vivid, urgent singing Gilchrist emphasised that the survivor is tortured, guilty. This was as fine a reading of the song as I’ve heard.

‘Oh, when I was in love with you’ starts off almost as a merry little ditty but the second of the two stanzas goes deeper and Gilchrist and his partners brought out very successfully the essential dichotomy of this superficially light little song. They were just as responsive to the moods of ‘Bredon Hill’.  The instrumentalists provided a truly pregnant introduction before Gilchrist began superbly to unfold the story. At first, in response to the quite innocent tone of the poem, his tone was light and airy. Among countless felicitous details in his performance of the whole cycle, I noted the plangent colouring which he brought to the words “coloured counties”. At the end of the third stanza the words “Good people, come and pray”, delivered with a steely ring, were a clarion call. Then this masterly reading attained new depths in the fifth stanza (“But when the snows at Christmas”). The mood was changed by the glacial playing of the Schubert Ensemble and Gilchrist’s voice had the chill of despair in it. The final stanza was darkly powerful. The tension in the music was built up quite superbly until Gilchrist delivered the line “O noisy bells, be dumb” with searing agony. As the performers brought the song to a hushed conclusion, Gilchrist repeated the final words “I will come”, sotto voce. I could have strangled the person who chose that very moment to cough loudly; could they not have waited just a few seconds?

The last song, ‘Clun’ starts easily enough and one is almost lulled into thinking that RVW is providing a relaxed, pastoral coda after the raw emotions of the previous song. However, the fifth and sixth verses are more intense in feeling and once again Gilchrist and the players caught the mood to perfection. I loved the easeful, gentle way they delivered the last verse and the postlude contained lovely violin and cello solos.

This was a quite outstanding account of On Wenlock Edge. During the two instrumental works on the programme the Schubert Ensemble gave a splendid demonstration of musical teamwork. In these Vaughan Williams songs they folded James Gilchrist into the team quite effortlessly. This was a collegiate and very understanding performance in which all six musicians involved seemed as one. But for all the excellence of the playing I have to say that the star of this particular part of the show was James Gilchrist. He didn’t push himself forward as ‘The Star’; indeed, his very positioning within the instrumental group emphasised the team approach. But his singing was so utterly compelling that it demanded the audience’s attention from first to last. The songs are ideally suited to his voice and to his interpretative skills and when I hear him sing like this I wonder if there’s a finer English tenor currently before the public.

Very rightly the capacity audience responded enthusiastically to this and to all the other performances in the programme. We were splendidly and stimulatingly entertained.

John Quinn

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