United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (15) – Songs by Berkeley, Britten, Beamish, Dowland, Schubert & Schumann: James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Craig Ogden (guitar) Queen’s Hall, 20.8.2015. (SRT)
If there was an organising principle to this concert then I couldn’t find it. First we had three song cycles with eastern influences in Lennox Berkeley’s Five Chinese Songs Op. 78, Britten’s Songs from the Chinese Op. 58 and Sally Beamish’s Four Songs from Hafez. Then Dowland and (randomly!) Schubert’s Ständchen, followed by Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland, topped off with Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis. It was, bluntly, far too full a programme (four song cycles alone!) and the speed with which the audience headed for the door at the final applause indicated that it had gone on too long.
There was lots to enjoy in this mini-marathon, and I especially liked the Beamish cycle, with its beautifully crafted musical images (the chirruping of the nightingale, the rushing of the waters around the fish), redolent with the flavours of Persia but without overdoing it. It was here, too, that Gilchrist was at his best, especially the mystical Hoopoe song with its soaring, introverted harmonies.
I have to admit that I didn’t warm to Gilchrist’s voice in the English settings, however. The clarity of his diction was exemplary, but he was prone to vocal swooning, often sweeping between the notes rather than attacking clearly. His overall approach was tender and sympathetic, but there was a dynamic throb to his voice that I didn’t find at all attractive. To my surprise, however, the Schumann suited him down to the ground, far more effectively than the English settings, showing lyrical understanding of both words and text without any of the traits that bothered me elsewhere.
It’s Craig Ogden who wins the prize for the best individual contribution, and not just for his melting way with the two Dowland settings. His Britten Nocturnal was dazzlingly virtuosic, most notably in the passacaglia, where you had to keep reminding yourself that it was only one instrument making all that sound.