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James Gilchrist
18 Jul 2014

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: James Gilchrist


Indeed, it was Beethoven’s six songs (To the Distant Beloved) — settings of texts by the minor poet, Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858) which are united by the idea or motif of love filtered through images of the idealised pastoral — which were most imaginative and impressive, as Gilchrist and his accompanist Anna Tilbrook swept seamlessly through the sequence, conveying the impetuousness and naivety of the enamoured young poet-speaker and the all-encompassing nature of his obsession with his beloved.

In the opening song, Gilchrist’s light tone was just right for the young man’s nostalgic recollections of the distant meadows where he first met his loved one as well as the wistful sadness of their subsequent separation. The introspective yearning of the second song, in which the poet longs to be at his lover’s side was beautifully evoked. Tilbrook crafted a lovely melodic line in the second stanza, as the voice repeated a single note over several bars, perfectly embodying the sentiments of the text which paints an image of stillness and the quiet observation of nature: ‘Still die Primmel dort sinnt, /Weht so leise der Wind/ Möchte ich sein!’ (the primrose meditates in silence, and the wind blows so softly — there would I be!).

‘Leichter Segler in den Höhen’ (Light clouds sailing on high) was light of tread but had a rhythmic persuasiveness, and the move to the minor for the final stanzas was tellingly pointed; indeed, throughout the recital Tilbrook shaped the harmonic pathways with discernment. In this Beethoven sequence the varied, developing accompaniments were fresh and compelling, and transitions between songs fluently executed, with some well-judged pauses, relaxations and surges of tempo.

After the simplicity of the first five strophic forms, Gilchrist employed the through-composed structure of the final song to shape a convincing conclusion. In the slow opening line, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese lieder’ (Accept, then, these songs) the legato was disarming, and he made effective use of a hushed head voice as the sun’s rays faded ‘Hinter jener Bergeshöh’ (behind those mountain heights).

The smooth grace of Gilchrist’s tenor and his unmannered attentiveness to musical and verbal nuances seemed especially well-suited to these Beethoven song. Tilbrook, too, demonstrated a dexterous technique and thoughtful touch, creating fleeting textures to capture the ‘pure’ sounds of the romantic landscape.

Scubert’s Rellstab settings which opened the concert, though they share Beethoven’s theme of love for a distant beloved, were less settled and focused; despite Gilchrist’s close observance of detail and his mellifluous delivery, he didn’t quite capture the darker side of the spirit of ‘Sehnsucht’ which is innate to these songs. The most successful of the set were the final two, ‘In der Ferne’ (Far away) and ‘Abschied’ (Farewell), in which the colours and tempo perfectly matched the poetic sentiment.

There were some engaging individual readings too: ‘Kreigers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding) was slow and ominous of tempo, and Tilbrook created a sense of resounding expanse in the incisive rhythms and broad phrases. Gilchrist was unfailingly alert to the individual words and to the poem’s rapid fluctuations of mood, although occasionally such attentiveness resulted in a loss of naturalness: the line ‘Von Sehnsucht mir so heiß’ (so afire with longing) was deliberately heightened, not without effect, but its repetition was troubled by a wavering vibrato which weakened the melodic form — a problem that was not reserved for this song.

In ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade), Gilchrist displayed a soft gentleness ideal for embodying the nocturnal song and moonlit rustlings and whispers. And, in ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’ (Spring longing) he used vocal colour to create a searching air; the queries which end each stanza — ‘Wohin?’, ‘Warum?’, ‘Und Du?’ — were tentatively posed, rather than rhetorical, creating a touching vulnerability and pathos.

The Heine settings had more intensity and drama, not surprisingly as the poetry leaves behind Rellstab’s sighing breezes and rippling streams and enters bleaker realms of suffering and isolation. ‘Atlas’ was powerfully rhetorical, with Tilbrook’s accompaniment fittingly heavy and laboured, but Gilchrist still did not quite convince as one wholly wretched, who has the weight of the world, and its suffering, upon his shoulders. While ‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was beautifully restrained, ‘Das Fischermädchen’ (The fishermaiden) had a bright energy and warm optimism.

The performers shaped the emotional climax of ‘Die Stadt’ (The town) with skill. The cool distance of the opening, as the turrets of the town loom mistily on the remote horizon, built to a pained intensity in the final line, ‘Wo ich das Liebste verlor’ (where I lost what I loved most) as the sun-drenched vision of the poet-speaker’s painful memory gleamed forth. An adventurously wide dynamic range was employed to suggest the insidious presence and danger of the wraith which haunts the poet-speaker in the final song of the Heine sequence, ‘Der Doppelgänger’; and, once more, Gilchrist and Tilbrook graded the escalation of the speaker’s despair, the riskily slow tempo of the first stanza surging in the last, as the tone grew ever more fierce and piercing.

Throughout the programme, Gilchrist displayed an attractive, relaxed middle register, some interesting colours at the bottom and a dreamy head voice; but in the Schubert songs when the dynamic rose in the upper range the voice seemed somewhat tense. Tilbrook was alert to the word- and mood-painting in Schubert’s accompaniments but sometimes the pictorial gestures were a little too deliberate, as in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) where the brook bubbled rather than murmured; and her use of rubato was at times overly conspicuous.

Unfailingly pleasing, this recital was meticulous in preparation and execution; perhaps too much so, in that Gilchrist never seemed to ‘inhabit’ the songs, rather to deliver them albeit with intelligence and skill; it all sounded rather too ‘nice’. But, that is scarcely a criticism — and perhaps a personal taste. For, while Gilchrist may not quite have the range of tones and shades to plummet the Romantic essence of these songs, he and Tilbrook demonstrated appreciable insight and care for the music.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 17th July 2014.

Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang D957; Ludwig van Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte Op.98

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