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Henry PURCELL (1959-1695)
O Solitude, my Sweetest Choice Z 406 (1684-84) [6:13]
Realised for High Voice and Piano by Benjamin Britten (1955)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Einsamkeit, D620 (1818) [20:04]
Jonathan DOVE (b 1959)
Under Alter’d Skies (2017) [19:48]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Hermit Songs, Op 29 (1952-53) [19:54]
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Anna Tilbrook (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
Texts & translations included
CHANDOS CHAN20145 [66:19]

James Gilchrist has written the booklet essay for this release. In it, he suggests that Solitude is “A state of being that we need, that perhaps we overlook too easily, that is harder to achieve and harder to endure than we expect.” His chosen composers, and the poets whose texts they selected, have approached the concept of solitude in different ways.

He opens the programme with Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s O Solitude, my Sweetest Choice. This proves to be an ideal opener. Purcell’s music has an almost hypnotic effect, at least as performed here. Everything about the performance seems in perfect equipoise and Gilchrist’s highly expressive singing makes the piece an enriching experience. I’ve often felt that Britten’s arrangements, particularly of folksongs, can be over-elaborate and, frankly, too clever. That’s emphatically not the case here; in fact, Britten’s composer’s insight enhances Purcell’s music.
As Gilchrist observes in his notes, Einsamkeit, Schubert’s first song-cycle is “unjustly neglected”. As a listener, I can only admit to being guilty as charged. I have two recordings of it in my collection but I could scarcely claim to know the cycle well. As it happens, both the recordings I have are by baritones: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s 1969 recording for DG with Gerald Moore and the version made by Nathan Berg with Graham Johnson which is included in Volume 29 of Hyperion’s Schubert Edition. To the best of my recollection, I don’t believe I’ve previously heard a tenor in this work – I missed Robin Tritschler’s album which included it (review). Schubert set six double stanzas by his friend, Johann Mayrhofer, in which the poet comments on the life experiences of a man as he progresses from youth to old age. So far as I can tell, the cycle doesn’t have any thematic links to bind it together but the poem makes it a coherent whole. Schubert almost certainly composed the work as a response to Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (1817), which had greatly impressed him.

Some passages of Einsamkeit consist of slow-paced music which, for want of a better word, I might call recitative. These seem to me to be musically the most successful – and they certainly inspire James Gilchrist to eloquent singing. Other sections are more dramatic in nature – and there’s also a drinking-song stanza in triple time. As a matter of personal taste, I am less impressed by these episodes: Schubert seems to try too hard and it doesn’t really come off. I find that I don’t really engage with the protagonist of Einsamkeit whereas the protagonists in Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise grab my attention immediately and never let go. Despite the great artistry of James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, I don’t think that Einsamkeit is top-drawer Schubert but it definitely fits well into the concept of this programme.

Jonathan Dove wrote Under Alter’d Skies expressly for these performers, who premiered it at the Wigmore Hall, pairing it with Schumann’s Dichterliebe. For his text Dove selected seven poems from the collection of 133 cantos collectively entitled In Memoriam which Tennyson wrote over a period of seven years following the sudden and wholly unexpected death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam in 1833 at the tragically young age of twenty-two. In the first poem, ‘Fair ship. Flowing’, the poet tells of the arrival of Arthur’s body, carried in a ship. Gilchrist delivers Dove’s eloquent music with plangent intensity, especially in the last verse. The next poem is ‘Calm is the morn’ and superficially the music is indeed calm yet there is great tension below the surface. Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook perform this song with exemplary control. The music for ‘To-night the winds begin to rise’ is stormy and suffused with bitter emotion, but even so Dove’s writing retains lightness of touch.

The fourth poem is ‘With weary steps’ and in his notes, Gilchrist refers to a “hint of spring”. As the singer for whom the cycle was written, he should know, and the reference is there in the words. However, I have to say I didn’t detect any hint of spring in the intense melancholy which pervades both the music and performance. Incidentally, a phrase from this poem furnishes the title of the cycle. As the cycle moves to its close the mood starts to change. There’s regret still, but also resignation, in the penultimate song, ‘Peace, come away’. Finally, ‘Thy voice is on the rolling air’, which is canto 130, so very near the end of In Memoriam, is poignant but moving towards acceptance. The music is more positive in tone, especially in the last two verses where Dove achieves almost a tone of rapture.

Jonathan Dove is well known as a fine writer for the human voice, both for choirs and, as here, for a soloist. Here he shows his usual keen responsiveness to words and his melodic invention. The piano part is colourful and rhythmically inventive. Under Alter’d Skies is an excellent set of songs which I enjoyed very much. Here it receives ideal advocacy from James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook.

Samuel Barber wrote his set of ten Hermit Songs for Leontyne Price and they gave the first performance together in October 1953 in the Library of Congress. That premiere was preserved and can be heard on an invaluable archive disc on the Bridge label (review). I’m sure that male singers must have sung them in the past, but to date the only other man I’ve heard in them was Gerald Finley (review). I’m delighted to find them sung here by a tenor and they suit James Gilchrist very well. The source of the texts is most unusual. As Gilchrist describes them, they are “taken from marginal jottings in medieval manuscripts produced by Irish monks as they worked at copying or illuminating”. Barber set these texts, one or two of which are mere fragments, in modern English translations by a variety of hands. It’s worth remembering that Barber was no mean singer himself and these songs – and indeed all his compositions in the genre – are very well written for the voice.

All the songs are really well done but I have a few favourites. ‘St Ita’s Vision’ opens with a recitative-like passage; Gilchrist’s way with both words and music really draws the listener in. The main body of the song is a lullaby. As he remarks in the notes, it’s not all that often that a male singer gets a chance to sing a lullaby; Gilchrist certainly makes the most of the chance, singing tenderly while Anna Tilbrook provides a most delicate accompaniment. He describes ‘The Crucifixion’ as “a stabat mater” and he sings the song with great intensity. As he does so, the piano part is placed to perfection by Ms Tilbrook. ‘The Monk and His Cat’ is a delightful song. Gilchrist tells the story in an ideal fashion while the piano part sounds deliciously feline as Anna Tilbrook plays it. The last song ‘The Desire for Hermitage’ couldn’t be bettered as a way to end a programme with the theme of Solitude. The present performance is thoughtful and gently intense.

This is a very fine recital. I love recital programmes like this which have been designed around an interesting theme and for which the music has been chosen with such discernment. The performances are consistently superb. James Gilchrist has selected songs which complement his voice in an ideal fashion. He sings the songs with great intelligence, fine feeling and terrific technique. Anna Tilbrook is his long-standing recital partner and it shows. Not only are the piano parts played with great skill but she is ‘with’ her soloist every step of the way; it’s a true musical partnership.

Producer/engineer Jonathan Cooper has recorded the performances ideally. The balance between voice and piano is shrewdly judged and the acoustic in Potton Hall provides a lovely mixture of warmth and clarity. James Gilchrist’s notes are illuminating.

This is a most rewarding recital which I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I have.

John Quinn

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