United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (7) – Venables, Ravel, Debussy, Vaughan Williams: James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Carducci String Quartet, Cirencester Parish Church, 31.7.2019 (JQ)
Ian Venables – Songs of Eternity and Sorrow Op.36
Ravel – String Quartet
Debussy – De Soir; Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons; Eventail; Green
Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge
For this concert the Three Choirs Festival paid a visit to the parish church of St John the Baptist, Cirencester. This is a fine, spaciously wide Cotswold wool church with a very high ceiling. For the concert goer it offers excellent acoustics and sight lines – and hard, uncompromising pews!
This programme was very thoughtfully devised. On either side of the interval we heard music by two great French masters and at the start and the end of the concert came song cycles for tenor and piano quintet by English composers, both of which set the poetry of A E Housman. There was a further link in that Vaughan Williams studied briefly with Ravel just before he composed On Wenlock Edge.
We began with Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, a cycle of four Housman poems which Ian Venables composed in 2004. Though I’m a great admirer of this composer’s music I’d not heard these songs before. There is a recording of the cycle which the tenor Andrew Kennedy made a few years ago for Signum Classics (SIGCD 112) but it’s one of the very few recordings of music by Ian Venables that has so far eluded me. (By coincidence, On Wenlock Edge is also included on that album.) I don’t believe Venables’ cycle has been performed very much over the last 15 years, which seems to me a crying shame.
The chosen poems are not from A Shropshire Lad; indeed, I understand that Venables was keen to find poems that other composers had not set. The four poems are all very interesting and it seems to me that they all have a common theme of The Outsider. ‘Easter Hymn’ will come as a surprise to anyone expecting the sort of Easter joy that we get in the first of VW’s Five Mystical Songs. Instead, Housman dwells on Christ buried in the tomb and Venables responds with a deeply serious, dark-hued setting. ‘When green buds hang in the elm like dust’ is a slow, serious and very beautiful song. Here, I especially liked the very fragile last phrases for the tenor in his top register, which James Gilchrist brought off splendidly. ‘Oh who is that young sinner?’ concerns a man who is being punished simply on account of the colour of his hair. The tempo is quicker here and the music biting. Gilchrist was searing in his delivery and the strong, irregular accents in the accompaniment emphasised the bitterness in Housman’s words. The first three songs had been very impressive but Venables saves his best for last. ‘Because I liked you better’ is a poem in which the poet enjoins the person he loves to forget him. The sex of the beloved is never stated, but surely Housman must have had in mind here his unrequited love for Moses Jackson? The music is slow, tender and regretful, though never maudlin – Venables is far too tasteful for that. James Gilchrist sang the song with a plangent intensity that was entirely appropriate and I loved the poignant and very subdued instrumental ending. These are fine songs which received terrific advocacy today. The composer, who was present, seemed delighted by the performance and he was warmly received by the audience.
The Carducci String Quartet treated us to Ravel’s solitary String Quartet, which dates from 1903. In the first movement, Allegro moderato – très doux, they invested the melodic material with a fine flow and the textures seemed to me to be ideally balanced and transparent. There is a more turbulent section partway through, but the music soon resumes its civilised, urbane way. The last pages, especially when the first violin and cello were playing in unison, truly realised the marking très doux. The scherzo incudes a good deal of pizzicato playing. The Carducci’s performance was very dynamic. In the slower middle section Ravel writes music of probing lyricism; here the playing was very stylish. In his programme note Gwilym Bowen rightly called attention to the somewhat unsettled nature of the slow movement. Unsettled it may be, but the music is still very lyrical. The Carduccis offered highly nuanced playing and I thought their account of this music was really lovely. The finale opens with a short, disturbed passage and I loved Gwilym Bowen’s description of it as ‘a storm in a quartet-sized teacup’. Once past this opening, the music is mostly energetic and dazzling; that’s certainly how it came across. This was a super performance of the work, making one regret that Ravel only composed one Quartet.
More French music followed the interval as James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook performed four of Debussy’s mélodies. In a song performance one’s attention is inevitably caught by the singer but I mean no disrespect to Gilchrist when I say that, notwithstanding the excellence of his singing, my ear was caught time and again by subtle felicities in Anna Tilbrook’s playing. She consistently displayed a sensitive and perceptive touch and she brought Debussy’s fascinating piano parts vividly to life. Gilchrist offered splendid interpretations. In ‘De soir’ the first few verses of Debussy’s own words are set to excited music but from stanza four the mood becomes more reflective and Gilchrist caught this change to perfection, especially with his beseeching delivery of the last three lines. Both performers brought lots of feeling to ‘Green’, a Verlaine poem, also set by Fauré. In ‘Eventail’ Gilchrist drew us into Mallarmé’s poem not just vocally but also by means of his gestures. As he had not hesitated to use gestures to excellent effect in the first three songs, I was mildly surprised that he was so economical with gestures, clearly by design, in the last song, ‘Noël des enfants qui n’ont pas de maisons’. This is anther song in which Debussy set his own words and it was written in the depths of winter during World War I as Debussy waited to have surgery for cancer. Gilchrist invested his singing with urgency and conviction but what struck me most forcibly about an excellent performance was the way in which he delivered the closing lines, first as a hushed prayer and then a heartfelt plea for peace.
James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook made a fine recording of On Wenlock Edge back in 2006 for Linn Records (CKD 296 or CKD 431). On that occasion they were joined by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet but today the Carducci Quartet did the honours. All six musicians brought great urgency to the title song: one really could sense the stormy winds blowing. Gilchrist gave us a rapt account of ‘From far, from eve and morning’. There followed a masterly rendition of ‘Is my team ploughing?’ Gilchrist used a very withdrawn head voice for the words of the dead young man, his voice drained of colour. The responses from the living friend were voiced dismissively – the friend wants nothing to do with these reminders of his dead pal. In the last two stanzas, the dénouement, the dead man’s anguish and his friend’s pangs of guilt were graphically illustrated through searingly intense singing.
After that we needed the folk-like simplicity of ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’. ’Bredon hill’ was memorable. The five instrumentalists softly evoked a summer haze. Thereafter Gilchrist wove a very strong narrative, using vocal colours most effectively. The last three stanzas were superbly delivered by everyone. Here, VW transcends Housman’s lines, giving them a greatly enhanced life. This was a totally compelling performance of a great song. Finally, ‘Clun’ was a rhapsodic pastorale. Gilchrist sang it with great imagination and delivered the last verse in an exquisitely quiet voice before the instruments brought the song and the cycle to a very peaceful end.
This was a very fine concert indeed. We heard marvellous music which had been shrewdly and thoughtfully woven into a stimulating programme. Very occasionally, I thought I detected a little bit of strain in James Gilchrist’s voice but that was far outweighed by the excellence of his singing in general and the insight and intelligence he brought to the music. Anna Tilbrook and the Carducci Quartet both played the fullest possible part in making this a concert to remember