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24 Jun 2016

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, Wigmore Hall London

A review by Claire Seymour


The philosophical profundity and the floridity of the linguistic conceits may offer partial explanation; or perhaps it is simply that there was a dearth of compositional talent. Whatever the cause, Gilchrist is seeking to redress the imbalance by commissioning three new settings of English Romantic poetry - from Sally Beamish, Julian Philips and Jonathan Dove - each of which is to be paired with a song-cycle by Schumann: the two Liederkreis cycles Opp. 39 and 24 and Dichterliebe.

Sally Beamish’s West Wind, premiered by Gilchrist during this Wigmore Hall recital with accompanist Anna Tilbrook, is a companion piece to Schumann’s Op.39 Liederkreis cycle. It sets texts by Joseph Eichendorff which Gilchrist describes as quite Gothic: ‘The poetry is full of misty, veiled night-time scenes where one is not quite sure what is going on - there are knights and maidens and strange happenings down in the valley.’

Certainly the deep rumbles of the piano bass in the opening bars of Beamish’s work, which ripple upwards like a fantasia of wind, and whisper and blast through the composition, are a dark portent of the tempest which is both ‘destroyer and preserver’. As Tilbrook conjured this ‘Wild Spirit’, Gilchrist was heard off-stage and his slow entry - as if in sympathy with the dead leaves, ‘pestilence stricken multitudes’ - increased the air of foreboding. The tenor’s line retreated, ‘cold and low’ like the ‘wingèd seeds’ which lie like ‘corpse[s] within [the] grave’, while Tilbrook’s eerie rustles intimated the Spring breeze to follow. The vocal line, combining declamation and lyricism, and featuring frequent fourth intervals, recalled Britten in its dramatic tautness and the precision of its response to Shelley’s text.

Gilchrist’s subsequent slow, low lament to the ‘dirge of the dying year’ was dragged down further by the piano’s repetitive bass pedal but the image of the ‘vast sepulchre’ from which would burst forth ‘vapours, from whose solid atmosphere/ Black rain, and fire, and hail’ initiated fresh impetus. Here, and throughout, Beamish skilfully conveyed Romantic dualities - destruction and creation, faith and doubt - and in the indecisive final phrase, ‘O hear!’, as in the opening part of the work, faded fragilely into inconclusiveness.

Tilbrook’s delicate pianissimo wonderfully evoked the dreamy exoticism of the third section of Shelley’s poem. The accompaniment’s sparse textures and ‘barely-there’ gestures, anchored by a steady quaver pulsing, were a perfect support for the tenor’s incantatory lyricism. His diction superbly crisp, Gilchrist made much of the imagery, ‘sea-blooms and oozy woods’, which Beamish treats with madrigalian mimicry at times: ‘Thy voice’ was a cry of fear, the piano’s rushing cluster the ‘tremble’ of the natural world. At this central point ‘Oh hear’ disappeared, merging with Romantic nothingness as embodied by the piano’s enigmatic commentary.

In the following section, the poet-speaker’s identification with the wind was suggested by imitation between the piano and voice, and Gilchrist again revealed Beamish’s attentiveness to the poetic text, emphasising details such as the long-held darkness of ‘dead leaf’, and the flourish of ‘mightiest’, while the image of a ‘wave to pant beneath thy power’ released a tumult of energy that matched the momentum of Shelley’s enjambment. The growing positivity and peace felt by the speaker was conveyed by a focused but relaxed mezzo forte as Gilchrist imagined himself as ‘The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven’.

The final section injected renewed determination and urgency: ‘Make me thy lyre’ commanded the tenor, accompanied by astringent harmonies and parallel chords. The address to the ‘Spirit fierce, my spirit’ brought a response in the form of a varied reprise of the piano’s opening squall. True to Shelley’s appeal, ‘Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy’ (here a beautiful, unaccompanied declamation), the voice’s apostrophe, ‘O Wind’, summoned the sounds of the airy lyre, then plummeted for the poet-speaker’s reverential hope, ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ In the closing bars, Gilchrist quietly left the platform.

Beamish’s text-setting recalls Britten and Purcell in its alertness to the rhythmic potential of the words and the clarity of the sometimes angular melodic line. Gilchrist proved himself the perfect proponent of the work, communicating with a naturalness and directness which complemented the easy, conversational flow of Shelley’s iambic pentameter. I hope that we have the chance to her West Wind again soon, but we will have to wait for subsequent Wigmore Hall seasons to hear how Philips brings Schumann’s Heine settings (Liederkreis Op.24) into company with the poetry of John Clare, and whether Gilchrist persuades Dove that either The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Byron’s Manfred is the perfect partner for Dichterliebe.

West Wind was preceded by five songs by Mendelssohn, a composer often criticised for failing to probe the Romantic subjectivity of his chosen poetic texts in the manner of Schumann or Schubert. Gilchrist began with ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ (On wings of song), a prime candidate perhaps for accusations of saccharine superficiality. Gilchrist’s tenor was warm and sweet, Tilbrook pedalled judiciously, and the duo used the minor-key inflections expressively, but they could not quite overcome the ‘Victorian parlour’ ambience. In a letter of 1842 to a former student, Marc André Souchay, Mendelssohn rebutted criticism that his Lieder Ohne Worte were songs ‘missing’ the poetry, declaring that ‘So much is spoken about music and so little is said. For my part I do not believe that words suffice for such a task … They [too] seem so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music … because the same word never means the same thing to different people’. Gilchrist, though, made much of the text, and the songs had directness and animation. ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ (There be none of Beauty’s daughters) was particularly compelling with the tenor making a sustained effort to convey the poetic spirit of Byron’s verse in which the poet-speaker reflects on the magic of his beloved’s beauty.

Tilbrook was an evocative accompanist, the piano’s syncopated throbbing embodying the distant tolling bells in ‘Nachtlied’ (Night song), and the fairy horses and elves of ‘Neue Liebe’ (New love) conjured by the accompaniment’s sprightly staccatos and measured-trill figures. In the latter, Gilchrist accurately negotiated the demanding contours of the swooping, leaping vocal line and the nuanced pacing of the final stanza in which the poet-speaker cautiously wonders if the elfin queen’s smile heralds a new love, or death, was skilfully controlled.

The Liszt songs which followed the interval were similarly attentive to detail and engagingly performed, but I found Gilchrist’s tenor a little too light and pure - even, dare one suggest, today of all days, rather ‘English’ - to capture the expressive agitation of some of these songs. That said, ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ (In the Rhine, the beautiful river) was gentle and dreamy and in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (You are like a flower) the tenor’s mezza voce floated blissfully. Gilchrist had the power, even low in the voice, to match the heroic gestures of the accompaniment to ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ (There was a King in Thule). Best of the pick was ‘Loreley’ which was notable for the duo’s masterly control of the song’s musical and dramatic form, and its rhetorical impact.

Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39 closed the recital. Gilchrist’s performance of the cycle was characterised by even vocal production, sustained intensity and expressive commitment that did not veer into melodrama. These qualities were compellingly present in ‘Waldesgespräch’ in which Gilchrist enacted the meeting between a knight - confident and focused of tone - and a mysterious beautiful woman - a restrained half-voice - as Tilbrook’s ‘hunting horns’ and rustling leaves evoked the nocturnal forest scene. The piano postlude created an unnerving sense of mystery, as the human figure was engulfed by the forest’s embrace, never more to be seen. Gilchrist can make his tenor seem quite ethereal at times and in ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit night) there was a lovely spaciousness as the beloved appeared to the poet-speaker, ‘as though Heaven had softly kissed the Earth’. ‘Wehmut’ (Sadness), too, was sensitively shaped. In contrast, ‘Frühlingsnacht’ (Spring night) ended the recital in a spirit of joyful refulgence.

Claire Seymour

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available via the BBC website ( Broadcast ) until 21 July.

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano.

Mendelssohn: ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ Op.34 No.2, ‘Schlafloser Augen Leuchte’ WoO.4 No.2, ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ WoO.4 No.1, ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6, ‘Neue Liebe’ Op.19a No.4; Sally Beamish: West Wind (world première); Liszt: ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ S272/2, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ S287, ‘Die Loreley’ S273/2, ‘Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam’ S309, ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ S278/2; Schumann: Liederkreis Op.39.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 22nd June 2016.

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