Is English song like the (supposed) English psyche, reticent and unassuming? Britten Winter Words, Finzi A Young Man's Exhortation and Tippett Boyhood's End would be an ambitious programme at any time, but augmenting live perforance with interactive video and digital media? James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook's recital was part of the Kings Place Transition Projects series by Netia Jones,
The theme was "Before Life and After", a self consciously trendy title for three groups of songs about boyhood relived in memory. Both Britten and Finzi chose poems by Thomas Hardy, fixing the time frame firmly in the past. A small boy is sent alone off to school with a key to his "box" round his neck. Boys still get shipped off to boarding school, but now their boxes are supplemented by laptops, games and mobiles. The kind of childhood in these songs is solitary. Boys create their own worlds tnrough their imaginations. Britten's Winter Words are chilling. A boy in a train station plays his violin to amuse an old man. Who turns out to be handcuffed to a policeman. Nowadays, we'd scream "paedophile". Yet the boy's act of kindness is so straightforward, it reflects on us that we've lost this innocence.
Netia Jones' films are semi-abstract. Images of garden gates, enclosing or opening onto empty roads, trees in winter stripped of leaves. Gilchrist sits at an old fashioned desk, with books, a thermos, an antique bar heater. This isn't our world, even though video screens surround him. It feels cold and austere, yet this staging draws you into an inner world that's all the more intense and creative because there are no comforts to dull the senses.
Britten's Winter Words were written in 1954, though they evoke a much earlier period. Hear The Choirmaster's Burial here) Gilchrist's style is more immediate and direct, conveying meaning with intelligence : he's specially beautiful in the words decorated with ornate melismas, which sound like pealing bells. Brilliantly, Jones's staging recreates the time warp. Gilchrist shuffles out of the "room" into the night, alone while Anna Tilbrook plays John Ireland's Soliloquy. It feels like floating down a time tunnel.
The six songs from Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation which Gilchrist and Tilbrook chose for this recital aren't so much songs about boyhood per se as about memory and the passing of time. "The first fire since the summer is lit" sings Gilchrist, "and it's smoking into the room". Evenings are drawing in early, youth fades like the change of season. Jones's videos are like old photographs, whose images have blurred with time. Very evocative, supplementing the songs with an extra layer of mystery.
For mystery is the essence of childhood. Michael Tippett's Boyhood's End was written for Peter Pears in 1953 (contemporary with Winter Words), It's a setting of a prose poem by William Henry Hudson who grew up in South America and never quite adjusted to living in cold and colourless Britain. Hudson describes experiences with the intense lucidity one might see through a microscope. Gilchrist sings of overpowering heat: Jones's images are of sunshine seen through a haze of leaves. Hudson's boy communes intimately with nature around him. Adult reality is very far away. Pears struggled with the unusual metre: Gilchrist has no problems, for a sense of wonder comes naturally to him, and his lucid delivery feels effortless and direct. He really is a born character-singer. Artifice is the least thing you'd want in this extended song, so semi-staging works well. You hear Gilchrist's light high tenor and see the boy on the projected screen, raising his arms in a gesture that's at once childlike and primeval.
This staging pulled together four disparate works so well thet it would have been churlish to expect an encore. Yet on my way home I kept thinking of Finzi's Childhood among the Ferns, also to Thomas Hardy. A boy hides under a dense canopy of tall ferns while rain pours down. He imagines he's in a secret nest. When the sun dries the ferns out, he smells the scent of the undergrowth and feels the warmth. "I could live on here this til Death" he muses, then cries, "Why should I have to grow to man's estate, And this afar-noises World perambulate?' Why didn't Britten and Tippett jump on this poem?