James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at the Wigmore Hall, London, with Sally Beamish's West Wind. Gilchrist has been one of the most determined advocates of English song, almost from the beginning of his career. Although his core repertoire is built on solid foundations of Handel, Purcell, RVW, Britten, and especially Gerald Finzi of whom he is a great exponent, Gilchrist has always made a point of promoting composers who should be more in the mainstream, like Hugh Wood, Lennox Berkeley and John Jeffreys and others whom he's performed live but not recorded. . By commissioning Beamish, one of the most prominent British composers for voice, Gilchrist is again making a valuable contribution to British music.
Beamish's West Wind is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, which everyone knows as a poem, but which has hardly ever been set to music, at least not in full. English poets dominate world literature - Shakespeare, the Restoration poets, Wordsworth, Keats - but this heritage is hardly reflected in music. History might explain things. The Industrial Revolution transformed British society, making it more urban and centralized than was the case elsewhere in Europe. British and continental European strands of Romanticism were very different, in ways too complex to describe here. Furthermore, the British choral tradition was so strong that other forms of music making didn't get much attention. Perhaps the very nature of English Romantic poetry is relevant. The style is fulsome and elegaic, lending itself to oratorio rather than to art song. It's significant that Hubert Parry was one of the first to create art song from English poetry. Read here about the ground breaking series of Parry's songs to English texts from Somm Records (Gilchrist, Roderick Williams and Susan Gritton.)
Rolling, circular figures introduce Beamish's West Wind , the voice entering from a distance as if it were being blown in by the "pestilence stricken multitudes". Soon, though, the voice asserts itself., Gilchrist sings the words "Cold and low.....the corpse within its grave". A slow, penetrating chill descends, but, like the wind, the music changes direction, at turns capricious, then still, then rushing forth. The third section is particularly beautiful. Delicate piano figures lead into curling, keening vocal phrases that seem to hover in the air, "Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams". In the lower register of the piano, perhaps we can detect sonorous "lungs". Suddenly lightness returns. "If I were a dead leaf", Gilchrist sings, almost unaccompanied, suggesting fragility. His touch is delicate, yet perfectly poised. The phrasing suits his voice. Gilchrist has the strange esoteric timbre of a typical English tenor, but also direct, almost conversational naturalness. From vulnerable sensitivity to the ferocity of the last poem. "Make me thy lyre" Gilchrist growls at the bottom of his timbre. Now Tilbrook's playing flutters weightlessly, like falling leaves. "Scatter, scatter, scatter" Gilchrist sings, each word on a slightly different level. "O.. O...O " he sang, mimicking the sound of wind, the word "Wind" pitched and held so high that it floated, rarified, into air.
Beamish's West Wind is quirky, underlining the disturbing undercurrents in a poem ostensibly about Nature, but too malign to be a "nature poem". I kept thinking of Peter Warlock's The Curlew, another cycle well suited to Gilchrist's style. I also remembered Gilchrist's Die Schöne Müllerin. There are hundreds of recordings, but his stood out out from the competition because it was an interpretation derived as if from clinical observation of the miller's psychology.
In this Wigmore Hall recital, Gilchrist and Tilbrook included songs by Mendelssohn,and Liszt and Schumann's Liederkreis op 39. Eichendorff's poems are less overtly ironic than Heine's, which formed the basis of Schumann's Leiderkreis Op 24. but are perhaps closer to,the spirit of the very early Romantic period. After hearing this performance, I've decided to grt Gilchrist's recent recording of the Schumann song cycles on Linn.
photo credit operomnia.uk/Hazard Chase Management