30 Jul 2013

Schubert’s Winterreise, Wigmore Hall

When faced with the illustrious Winterreises of the past and the renowned, and often highly original, interpretations of present-day performers, how is a tenor to approach Schubert’s setting of Wilhelm Müller’s pessimistic exploration of a mind spinning into disillusion and despair?

James Gilchrist’s wandering poet-narrator is not a tormented nor angst-laden Romantic hero, rather an introverted, sincere individual, struggling to understand the wiles of the world in which he lives. Gilchrist’s presentation of the rejected beloved of Schubert’s celebrated song-cycle is characterized not by excessive solipsistic anguish or ardent emotional unrest; instead, restrained introspective sorrow and self-honesty, punctuated by brief eruptions of misery and resentment in the face of a hostile fate, mark his progress through an unremittingly unsympathetic landscape.

Gilchrist’s technique is assured and his command of Schubert’s expressive elements intelligent and well-considered. A seamless lyricism and even tonal palette establish a focused emotional ambience, and the diction is unfailingly clear while never mannered. His tenor has a baritonal quality - a richly expressive middle range complemented by a lighter upper register - although the lower passages sometimes lack support and weight. A tendency to use a quasi-falsetto at moments of quiet poignancy is affecting but, upon repetition, the weightless, floating delivery became less effective. Gilchrist’s tone is beautiful and the projection easeful, but at times the voice is rather ‘breathy’ at the top, as what might be an expressive gesture seems to be a technical compensation. But, an unfussy attention to detail, and a quiet intensity and pensive intimacy characterised this warmly received Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall.

Pianist Anna Tilbrook began ‘Gute Nacht’ with a purposeful tread, self-contained but resolute; and Gilchrist’s beguiling legato and fluid phrasing established a dreamy air and ensured our sympathy and compassion. Moments of rhetorical anger - ‘Was soll ich länger weilen,/ Daß man mich treib’ hinaus’ (Why should I wait any longer/ for them to drive me out’) - were heightened but not exaggerated, and ceded to more resigned delicacy, ‘Gott has sie so gemacht … Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht’ (God has made it so … my sweetest love, good night’). Subtle rubatos conveyed both indecision and hope.

Gilchrist employed a wide dynamic range and interesting vocal timbres. At the conclusion of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, his eerie low tenor erupted dramatically as the poet-narrator imagines his beloved as a fierce heat that will spring from his heart and melt the winter ice, the contrasting vocal shades and dynamics underscoring the painful depths of such fiery passion felt amid the wintry chill of the frozen landscape. ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood) was the epitome of well-considered musicianship, full of movement and unrest but the jarring contrasts of emotion crafted and controlled. The falling octaves of the opening lines were sweetly anguished, and Gilchrist found an angry, burnished colour to underscore the contrast between the cold flakes of snow and the poet-narrator’s burning agony. The beautiful, soft stillness of the closing lines was vividly swept aside by the acceleration and crescendo of the final assertion, ‘Fühlst du meine Tränen glühen,/ Da ist meiner Liebsten Haus’ (when you feel my tears burning, that will be my loved-one’s house).

A similarly surprising outburst marked the conclusion of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (On the river). Gilchrist’s tenor was wonderfully contained and focused as the poet-narrator etches his beloved’s name upon the frozen surface of the silent stream, before turning his exasperation inwards, challenging his own heart, ‘Ob’s unter seiner Rinde/ Wohl auch so reißend schwillt?’ (is there such a raging torrent beneath its surface too?). And, this fury and momentum swept forth into the subsequent ‘Rückblick’ (A backward glance), where the animated piano figuration and alternating major and minor modes suggested the inner turmoil of the rushing, stumbling poet-narrator.

The perfectly coordinated vision of singer and pianist was apparent throughout. In ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The Weather-vane) Tilbrook responded perceptively to the pictorial elements - the introductory flourishes mockingly conjuring the play of the wind - bringing gestures intermittently to the fore, then sensitively retreating. The turbulent introduction to ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) was wonderfully even, depicting the wanderer’s frustration and emotional torment; the merest pause preceded the question, ‘Wo find’ ich eine Blüte,/ Wo find’ ich grünes Gras?’ (Where shall I find a flower, where shall I find green grass?), giving the line added poignancy. The piano’s echoing motif which penetrates ‘Die Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree) was clearly articulated, integrated into the song’s narrative but never overpowering the voice.

‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) had a spookily improvisatory quality; but in the following ‘Rast’ (Rest), Gilchrist’s enriched his tone - although to convey the wanderer’s weary distraction, he diminished to a wistful pianissimo floating gesture - the voice contrasting tellingly with the dry, mocking ambience of the piano accompaniment. Changes of tempo were perfectly controlled in ‘Frühlingstraum’ (Dream of Spring), the sweet lightness of the nocturnal visions of springtime undermined by the piano’s Gothic rumblings, as the crowing cock and screaming ravens interrupt the idyll of the dream.

Only in the central sequence of songs, which share the same slow tempo, was there a slight loss of momentum and energy. A moment of pause at the conclusion of the introverted ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness) conveyed the poet-narrator’s despair in the face of a seemingly indifferent natural beauty, but the steady tread of the subsequent songs occasionally lacked impetus. ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head) was, however, noteworthy for Gilchrist’s legato phrasing and the nuanced colours of Tilbrook’s accompanying chords, while in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope) the performers created a delicate, transparent texture, Gilchrist bringing deep sentiment to the drooping suspensions of the close: ‘Fall’ ich selber mit zu Boden,/ Wein’ auf meiner Hoffnung Grab’ (I too fall to the ground, weep on my hope’s grave).

Forward motion was regained in the concluding songs. Gilchrist revealed a commanding sense of the shape of the vocal phrases in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The sign-post), the pulsing piano gesture suggesting an unobtrusive but immovable fate, symbolised by the sign-posts which direct the wanderer as he staggers on and on, in search of rest. In ‘Mut!’ (Courage!), the tenor’s bitterly determined tone was enhanced by vigorous dotted rhythms, and complemented by Tilbrook’s repeated rubato which conveyed the desperate effort required to battle onwards against the hostile snow.

The poignant tenderness of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns) was deeply affecting, as Gilchrist modulated his well-supported mezza voce from initial dreamy illusion to more fervent assertion. ‘Die Leiermann’ (The organ-grinder) followed on without a pause, the slow pace and simple, unaffected vocal line conveying the poet-narrator’s utter exposure.

A long silence followed the final fading chords; indeed, it seemed a shame to break the mood of fragile vulnerability that the performers had so skilfully and sensitively crafted. But, Gilchrist and Tilbrook undoubtedly deserved the immensely appreciative applause which inevitably ensued, for this was a dignified and discerning Winterreise.

Claire Seymour

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Friday, 26th July 2013.