Tuesday, 15 December 2009

James Gilchrist Die Schöne Müllerin

James Gilchrist is singing Winterreise at Kings Place on Thursday 17th - the highlight of the month for me. Should be atmospheric, since the weather's turning cold and the room at Kings Place is ideal for Lieder. He's very good indeed, and Winterreise suits his voice and style.

There are dozens of recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin, but this new CD by James Gilchrist stands out from the competition because it’s distinctive, and interpretation of great insight and sensitivity. The key to singing Lieder is understanding what it means. I don't like "operatic" versions which distance the singer from the rawness of the experience, and I don't like smooth versions which blank out the knots. Gilchrist may not be in the league of Schreier, Wunderlich or Goerne, but his version is psychologically well observed and is a significant contribution, even if you have dozens of recordings already.

Die Schöne Müllerin is filled with sunny, pastoral images, but it isn’t a pretty story. Gilchrist and Tilbrook demonstrate how Schubert builds the young miller’s hyperactive extremes into the music. Long before psychology taught us about mental illness, Schubert observed with almost clinically observed accuracy. Gilchrist and his pianist Anna Tilbrook observe the startling contrasts in the music. The young miller is unbalanced. He has violent mood swings, hears voices and kills himself when reality doesn’t match his delusions. Now he might be diagnosed bi-polar.

Disturbed as the miller may be, Gilchrist doesn’t judge. Indeed, this is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal, for Gilchrist takes the young man on his own terms. When the miller is happy, Gilchrist’s voice lights up with glee. When harsh truth encroaches, Gilchrist’s tone hardens, reflecting the young man’s bitterness. You can hear the manic energy that propels Das Wandern, the piano part relentless beating out the steady rhythm. When the miller spots the mill in Halt!, Gilchrist’s voices rises with excitement. In Mein! – note the exclamation marks – the miller is so sure he’s go the girl that his joy reaches fever pitch.

Yet this brightness is unnatural. Again, this is psychologically astute, for in the young miller’s mind there are no shadows, only the glow of madness. When it dawns on him that the girl might fancy someone else, his heightened mood switches to anger. One moment he sings of Die liebe Farbe (the beloved colour), and the next it’s Die böse Farbe (the hated colour). Gilchrist’s voice takes on a harsh edge which is perfect in the circumstances. In a cycle like this, emotional truth is far more important than superficial prettiness. The spirit of the brook is speaking through the young man, and it’s malevolent, like a supernatural demon.

Gradually the spirit of the brook takes control, submerging the young miller long before he drowns in its depths. Unable to resist, the lad talks to the brook. In Der Müller und die Bach, Gilchrist pauses imperceptibly, as if he’s really listening to another entity. It’s eerie. Tilbrook’s assertive style works well, because the brook is in control now. Compare the meekness of the miller’s lines with the dominance of the piano part. “Du meinst es so gut” (you mean so well) the boy tells the brook, unconcerned that suicide is an extreme solution to being jilted. In fact, he probably doesn’t register on her radar.

At last, he drowns himself, merging with the spirit of the brook. “Böses Mägdelein”, Gilchrist snarls. Even though the boy is past caring, the brook remains vindictive because it’s irrational. Even when the boy is dead, the brook remains so manipulative that it tries to control the girl. Gilchrist and Tilbrook reach the psychological core of this remarkable song cycle, yet do so with surprising humanity. Deluded as he was, they make you identify with the boy’s vulnerability. When he’s destroyed, his fate seems horribly unfair.

The clarity of this performance is matched by the clarity of the translation by Richard Stokes. It’s lucid and direct, a bracing antidote to the devious spirit of the brook. There are many new recordings of this cycle, every year, some more aggressively marketed than others. This recording, by the small independent label Orchid Classics, deserves more attention because it’s so original. These days huge multinationals are creating a monomarket, squeezing out innovation, so it's important to support lively small independents like Orchid. And with this DSM, you're getting something very original, too.

I've been following Gilchrist's career since first hearing him at Ludlow way out in rural Shropshire at the English Song Weekend organized by Finzi Friends. This is "the" major English song festival, the biggest one of all. This year's programme is just out so I'll write about it shgortly This year really is the best ever. I've heard Gilchrist sing both DSM and Winterreise before - follow the labels on right to read about him at Oxford last year.

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