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James Gilchrist [Photo by Jim Four courtesy of Hazard Chase]
19 Jan 2011

James Gilchrist, Wigmore Hall

Arms swinging loosely at his side, a relaxed smile and bright eyes conveying his confident ease, James Gilchrist’s young wanderer bounded nimbly onto the stage at the Wigmore Hall, radiating and embodying the fresh optimism of spring, at the start of this technically assured and dramatically coherent performance of Schubert’s song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin.

Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday

Above: James Gilchrist [Photo by Jim Four courtesy of Hazard Chase]


But such sanguinity was almost immediately disturbed and ultimately dispelled. Although never melodramatic (there was little of the painfully intense brooding and wrought self-examination of Bostridge, Padmore or Scholl), Gilchrist and his accompanist, Anna Tilbrook, shaped the narrative effectively, subtly pointing the changes of mood: thus, shifts from hope to despair, from introspection to anger, seemed inevitable, never exaggerated, as the psychology of the drama unfolded in a controlled, naturalistic manner. The naïve enthusiasm of the opening gave way to a resigned weariness and deeply expressive poignancy at the close of the cycle; the sustained and penetrating stillness and quietude which following the final cadence, revealed that the audience, almost unconsciously swept along on the journey which began so hopefully, truly shared the protagonist’s surprise at his ultimate failure and disappointment.

Gilchrist’s light tenor and distinct diction (all well-shaped vowels and crisp consonants but never mannered) perfectly conveyed the ebullient mood of ‘Das Wandern’ (‘Journeying’). Assertive, dynamic playing by Anna Tilbrook conjured a lively brook, the precise and springy rhythms aptly conjuring the bubbling, restless water. Throughout Tilbrook took an active role in the narrative: the regularity and clarity of the whirling cycles of the mill in ‘Halt!’ and ‘Am Feierabend’ (‘When the work is done’), suggested both the literal power of the mechanism and the figurative fixedness of the forces that the young wanderer must face. Indeed, despite the happy ambience of the opening song, one might have intimated a subtle but insistent menace in the incisiveness of the brook’s tireless energy, which here positively supports the wanderer’s song but which later becomes an insistent tremor — the ‘murmuring friend’ in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the brook’) — and finally a threatening ‘roar’ (in ‘Mein’) which haunts, undermines and overcomes him.

Despite possessing a naturally light-grained voice, Gilchrist subtly used tone and colour to indicate the wanderer’s psychological journeying and wavering. Thus, the light headiness of ‘Wohin?’ (‘Where to?’) expressed his excited anticipation, while in ‘Halt’ Gilchrist adopted a more resonant timbre upon arriving at the mill. Similarly, the subdued, introspective questioning of ‘Der Neugierige’ (‘The inquisitive one’) — “tell me, brooklet, does she love me?” — gave way first to an sudden, excited outburst when he is sure of the mill girl’s love — “the maid of the mill I love is mein!”; the persistence of the repeated phrase hinted at the young man’s growing self-delusion. Replaced by a harder, more urgent tone in ‘Tränenregen’ (‘Rain of tears’), the vocal colours modulated into bitterness in ‘Die böse Farbe’ (‘The hateful colour’) . Confident and comfortable across all registers, Gilchrist was particularly controlled at the height of his tessitura, in the superbly sustained arcs of ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ and in the more angry protestations of ‘Der Jäger’ (‘The Hunter’).

Rhythm and pace were handled with similar expertise; slight rallentandi at the close of songs permitted a fluent progression to the next, effectively sustaining the narrative momentum. Pauses were meticulously judged — as in ‘Der Neugierige’, where expressive dissonances and inconclusive melodic lines were skilfully crafted to convey impending meditative melancholy: “one little word is ‘yes’,/ the other is ‘no’/ by these two little words/my whole world is bounded.” In the penultimate song, ‘Der Müller und die Bach’ (‘The miller and the brook’), Gilchrist’s almost imperceptible hesitations suggested that the wanderer was lost in his own disillusion; detached from reality, he now dwells in imaginary realms and suicide is the only possible closure.

Tilbrook subtly pointed the oscillations between major and minor modes — the transition to the darker minor at the conclusion of ‘Mein!’ was stunningly affective — so that they served as an aural metaphor for the ironic contrast between the verdant beauty and freshness of the surrounding countryside and the wanderer’s growing disappointment as he recognises the falsity of the land’s promise.

Gilchrist’s musical intelligence is considerable, and this was a thoughtfully conceived and uniformly captivating whole. The paired songs, ‘Die liebe Farbe’ and ‘Die böse Farbe’, in which the rich greenery is first a ‘beloved’ and then a ‘hateful’ colour, were an emotional and expressive highpoint; astonishingly, while the voice almost disappeared in a pianissimo whisper, the words and their sentiment were presented with deep impact. But it was the touching simplicity of the final three songs which was most remarkable — and surprising, after the emotional troughs and peaks of the preceding songs. The pale, gentleness of the voice, defenceless against steady presence of the brook was extraordinary poignant: the significance of Tilbrook’s initial assertiveness was now apparent, the brook’s indifference to the wanderer’s deathly lullaby revealed.

Gilchrist and Tilbrook released a highly acclaimed recording of Die schöne Müllerin in 2009 on the Orchid label. That this audience was deeply affected by this live rendering of the wanderer’s tale, was attested by the long, resonant silence which followed the final cadence.

Claire Seymour

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