Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin D795 (1823) (Das Wandern [2:27]; Wohin? [2:03]; Halt! [1:27]; Danksagung an den Bach [2:42]; Am Feierabend [2:19]; Der Neugierige [4:05]; Ungeduld [2:27]; Morgengruss [4:23]; Des Müllers Blumen [2:56]; Tränenregen [4:20]; Mein! [2:15]; Pause [5:27]; Mit dem grünen Lautenbande [1:59]; Der Jäger [1:04]; Eifersucht und Stolz [1:35]; Die liebe Farbe [5:02]; Die böse Farbe [2:02]; Trockne Blumen [4:19]; Der Müller und der Bach [5:02]; Des Baches Wiegenlied [7:27])
James Gilchrist (tenor); Anna Tilbrook (piano)
rec. 27-28 April 2009, Champs Hill, Sussex. DDD
German texts and English translations included

Much of how one reacts to a lieder singer is very subjective: does one like the singer’s voice or not? Unlike with instrumentalists, where style is the main criterion of approval, timbre, which, for the most part is innate, is the differentiating element among singers.

Listening to Gilchrist sing this wonderful song-cycle, I had very mixed feelings. He is certainly an accomplished artist, and there are times when his airy tenor seems to fit the music quite well; for example, two of the slower songs, Des Müllers Blumen and Tränenregen, near the middle of the cycle, sound quite nice in his voice. He has a good control of vibrato, which he generally uses mostly at the end of phrases rather than a permanent waver. This style of singing sounds much more like a baroque method of using vibrato than one that lieder singers use; it’s worth noting that Gilchrist has performed and recorded a number of Bach cantatas and other baroque works. One aside: I am constantly irked by the odd habit of British singers to roll their Rs in German songs much more than many Germanic singers do; it sounds odd and affected. This is present in certain songs more than others, but when I hear it, it makes me wince.

But Gilchrist’s airy voice doesn’t work throughout the cycle, and he tries to compensate for this by slowing down some of the songs; a technique which, in my opinion, does not always work very well.

One difficult song in this cycle is Der Jäger, which is quite rapid, and calls for an extremely detailed technique in order to keep up with the piano. Gilchrist has trouble here, and a couple of times in this song he audibly gasps to keep his breathing up to speed.

In Die liebe Farbe, one of the most melancholy songs in the cycle, I find that Gilchrist just doesn’t express the emotion for which this song calls. Gilchrist has a “sweet” quality, a tenor leaning almost toward that of a counter-tenor, and this song calls for more “bite”, more seriousness. Comparing Gilchrist’s recording with Ian Bostridge’s version of this song on his Hyperion record with Graham Johnson shows some striking differences. Not only is Bostridge far more emotive, but the overall tempo - one minute less in Bostridge’s recording - gives this song much more power than Gilchrist’s plodding approach. The same is the case for Peter Schreier’s recording with Andras Schiff; with a tempo close to that of Bostridge, he sculpts this song more richly than Gilchrist who attempts to make it more emotional by slowing it down.

In Des Baches Wiegenlied, the final song, Gilchrist again opts for a slow tempo - once again, more than a minute slower than Bostridge or Schreier - as if to compensate by speed for the sound of his voice. This song sounds sweet here; not the effect that the song should truly give to the listener.

I found the overwhelming reverberation in this recording disturbing, and the position of the voice seems to be a bit too distant and is sometimes too soft compared to the piano. Unlike the wonderful mix of the Bostridge/Johnson recording, Gilchrist and Tilbrook sound a bit muddy.

I should note that we have another review of this recording on MusicWeb International, by my colleague John Quinn. I didn’t read his review until I wrote the above, but then went to see what he had said. John talks about Gilchrist’s performance being “dark”, and it seems to me the only darkness is expressed here by tempo, because it’s so difficult for a voice as light as his to express the darkness in this cycle.

Nevertheless, Gilchrist does have a fine, attractive voice. While some of the songs work well, I find that the overall cycle doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as, say, Bostridge’s recording (if one limits the field to tenors), or Fischer-Dieskau’s 1961 recording with Gerald Moore, recently reviewed here.

Kirk McElhearn

see also review by John Quinn