United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (1) – Berlioz, Ravel, Schumann, Wolf, Mahler, Gurney, Warlock: James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tilbrook (piano), St Barnabas Church, Tuffley, Gloucester, 23.7.2016. (JQ)
Berlioz – Villanelle; Au cimitière: clair de lune; Petit oiseau
Ravel – Histoires naturelles
Schumann – Wanderlied; Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen
Wolf – from Möricke-Lieder: ‘Jägerlied’; ‘Auf einer Wanderung’
Mahler – from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’; ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’; ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’
Gurney – Spring; Under the greenwood tree
Warlock – Rest, sweet nymphs; Pretty ring time
On the opening afternoon of this years’ Three Choirs Festival James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook gave a recital inspired by the work of the charity, Mindsong. This charity, of which Gilchrist, a qualified doctor, is president, was founded in 2006 as a pilot outreach programme for the Festival but has since expanded into an autonomous organisation. Mindsong’s team of professional music therapists work with people who suffer from dementia and the charity’s reach extends throughout the three counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. As we settled into enjoying, for its own sake, a week of top class music-making it was salutary – and proper – to be reminded of how vital music can be for some of those afflicted by dementia,
Gilchrist’s programme, or at least the composers represented, was highly relevant as Clare Stevens pointed out in her excellent programme notes. Berlioz began studying to become a doctor but, unlike James Gilchrist, he didn’t stay the course. In addition the substantial mood swings to which he was prone may well suggest a degree of mental instability. In the last years of his life Ravel probably suffered from aphasia, undiagnosed at the time. Poor Schumann’s mental problems were well documented, as were those of Wolf. Ivor Gurney was probably in a fragile mental state even before service in the World War I trenches resulted in severe mental disorder while Philip Heseltine, otherwise known as Peter Warlock, suffered from depression to such an extent that eventually he took his own life. Mahler probably did not suffer mental illness per se but, as the notes put it, he “never resolved the tensions in his mind.” Faced with these illnesses, about which so little was known during their respective lifetimes, the wonder is that all of these composers gave us so much wonderful music.
In the first of several short, witty introductions to groups of songs James Gilchrist said that the programme did indeed feature music by composers who were “troubled in mind” but this “didn’t narrow the field” sufficiently so there was a subsidiary theme: birds. And indeed there were avian connections, some more pronounced than others, in almost all of the songs.
Included in his opening Berlioz group were two songs from the cycle Les nuits d’été. Performances of the songs with piano are not, perhaps, as frequent as those in which the songs are clad in their orchestral dress. The two selected here are probably the two in which the loss of orchestral colour matters least. Nonetheless the pianist has much to do if the listener is not to “miss” the orchestra: Anna Tilbrook succeeded magnificently, especially in Au cimitière: clair de lune. Gilchrist’s singing here was superb; the long, plangent lines at the start were floated beautifully and, as the song unfolded, he increased significantly the intensity of expression. Earlier, in Villanelle both artists displayed marvellous lightness of touch.
Each one of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles is about a bird. In ‘Le paon’ Gilchrist vividly suggested, both gesturally and vocally, the proud peacock, anticipating in vain the arrival of his pea hen bride. I don’t know if the marking for ‘Le grillon’ is legerissimo but that’s what we got from both singer and pianist as the hyperactivity of the cricket was described; just as telling was the delivery of the brief passages where the bird pauses for breath. In ‘Le cygne’ Gilchrist described the graceful, regal swan and his voice floated over a wonderfully liquid piano part. In ‘Le martin-pêcheur Gilchrist conveyed wonderfully the fisherman’s chance encounter with a kingfisher, the angler reluctant to so much as breath for fear of frightening the bird away. Finally, in ‘Le pintade’ Gilchrist used gesture and vocal colour to evoke the guinea-fowl. Here, as elsewhere in the cycle, he genuinely told the story; indeed, he brought Ravel’s songs vividly to life. Throughout the recital Anna Tilbrook’s playing was superb but here, in Ravel’s demanding, illustrative piano parts I thought she surpassed herself.
Then, as Gilchrist put it, we crossed the Moselle for songs by Austro-German composers. The two Schumann offerings date from 1840, his inspired Liederjahr. In the opening and closing stanzas of Wanderlied Gilchrist put his best foot forward but he responded sensitively to Schumann’s relaxation into expressive lyricism in the middle of the song. Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen received a marvellously poetic delivery. Wolf’s Auf einer Wanderung was included in the programme, we were told, simply because the artists think it’s “absolutely gorgeous”. That seems to me to be a pretty good justification and the performance was lovely.
In Mahler’s Lob des hohen Verstandes birds were well to the fore and Gilchrist showed again his gift for story telling as he related the comic story of the cuckoo and the nightingale. His performance was very funny and prompted applause and laughter. Elsewhere in the recital the propensity of some of the audience to applaud between individual songs in groups was rather irritating; here it was justified. Though we are used to hearing Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt as a solo song with piano it’s arguably even more familiar as the basis for the third movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. That places a great onus on the pianist who, as in the Berlioz, has to make us “forget” that there’s no orchestra present. Superb pianism from Anna Tilbrook banished any memories of an orchestra and she was the perfect foil to Gilchrist’s witty delivery of the song.
And finally, English song. We heard a brace of songs from both Gurney and Warlock.. I particularly admired the lightness and dexterity that both artists brought to Gurney’s Spring. In the soothing lyrical lines of Warlock’s Rest, sweet nymphs James Gilchrist offered light, effortless legato. A thoroughly engaging rendition of the same composer’s Pretty ring time brought the published programme to an end. The very warm reception from the audience prompted an encore: Roger Quilter’s Under the greenwood tree, a delightful little song, delightfully delivered.
At the start of the afternoon James Gilchrist told us how delighted he and Anna Tilbrook were to be performing on the opening day of the Three Choirs Festival. With this engaging and superbly executed recital I think they set the standard for the coming week.