by Rachel Beaumont

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The one that was worth it: James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at Wigmore Hall

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook
Wigmore Hall
Stalls H1, £25
1 November 2020
Wigmore page

Purcell, O solitude, my sweetest choice
Schubert, Einsamkeit
Dove, Under Alter’d Skies
Barber, Hermit Songs

In buying a ticket for this programme I had to negotiate both covid guilt and baby guilt, my love for James Gilchrist strong enough even to resist the despairing cries of my husband as I negotiated a leave of absence for one last concert. Gilchrist did not disappoint – as, indeed, he never does. This, perhaps unlike any of the other concerts I’ve attended in this unhappy lockdown interlude, was worth it.

I remember vividly the first Gilchrist recital I attended, of Schubert lieder in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building in Oxford, what must be at least a decade ago. I’d already marvelled at his performances in Bach’s Passions but the intimacy of this recital seemed even more precious – the same loud, easy resonance, the same precise engagement with the text and above all the absolute clarity and certainty of communication that sadly, strangely, is rare.

That concert feels a long time ago, and, what with the assortment of guilt I brought with me to the Wigmore, I was aware I was placing much on Gilchrist’s shoulders. But while much since then has changed, Gilchrist, apparently, has not. He still stands humbly on the stage, his head a little bowed, as singing teachers tell you not to do. He still sings out with a sweet and warm tenor voice, a voice not of opera but of Bach and song; still astonishingly loud but so carefully balanced. And he still seems to turn the full intensity of his mind and body to communicating the music in the moment.

It gets my goat that almost never do you see a song recital where the singer is off book, but you get used to such things. On Gilchrist’s performance this evening the very idea that written music should ever be needed by a singer when they are singing to an audience seemed unthinkable. He knows the music totally, of course, but much more importantly he knows that his whole purpose as a singer is more than to vocalise, is to embody the character of the composer’s music, be it Purcell’s sweet anguish, Schubert’s solitude, Dove’s brittle misery or the mercurial expansiveness of Barber’s Hermit Songs, now insouciant, now elegiac. Gilchrist takes seriously his responsibility to manifest the music in a way almost never seen in recital. Gilchrist is the gold standard – enhanced, perhaps, here by having recorded the same programme this summer – but why don’t others try harder?

Dove would never be my favourite composer but the intensity of Gilchrist’s interpretation and performance invested the repetitive cells of his music with a kind of horror in Tennyson’s text that was almost unbearable. I felt uncomfortably pinned by a strength of reaction I would never have expected from a composer whose music often feels flimsy. It was a relief to retreat to the urbanity of Barber’s Hermit Songs – though once again Gilchrist’s perception and clarity illuminated depths of this familiar cycle. I should say a word for the accompaniment of Gilchrist’s regular collaborator Anna Tilbrook, which was sufficient and sensitive – but, as you can tell, Gilchrist’s singing held all of my attention.

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