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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
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
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.