In a world which through the invention of the social media has made hype or, as the 18c described it , puff ever more widespread, in which celebrity can be achieved at least for a moment by the truly witless and untalented , it is rather disconcerting to find that you feel yourself in danger of running out of superlatives. It makes one pause to wonder whether one has caught the contagion and that musicians only have to apply a finger to a key board, a bow to a string or for a wind instrument to be blown or a mouth to be opened for one to go weak at the knees. Such is my present dilemma in the regard the ongoing series of Lunchtime Concerts which have seemed to me with hardly an exception to be the best in my memory. I am, however, buoyed up by remembering a number of very wise people back in September thinking it likely to be so and that all that is happening is that for once a prophecy is actually fulfilling itself.
Certainly the recital given by James Gilchrist and Anna Tillbrook never looked on paper likely to break the pattern, nor did it in actuality. In what is perhaps the most demanding of musical forms, in which in the most intense manner it is demanded of both artists that they show pinpoint response not only to the note but also to the word, this was an exemplary lesson in what can be achieved in the form. The singer’s diction was clear so every word and phrase could be savoured ,though full marks to the organisation for providing the audience with texts just in case. James Gilchrist’s approach to the form is so different to my memories of the few recitals I attended in my youth when the singer came on the platform in evening dress, stood magisterially by the piano and at attention delivered the goods. More often now the singer both in voice and body tries to present the inherent drama which is so often present in the best of the genre. Occasionally this can be overdone and can distract from the music , but here it was perfectly gauged so that the audience could feel itself drawn into the centre of the musical journey inherent in all three works featured.
Of course, much more than dramatic gesture is required to keep the attention. The quality of the voice and of the piano playing is paramount and in that respect at times this recital touched the sublime. James Gilchrist has a voice of outstanding purity and power with a capacity to maintain quality through a great range of dynamics. He also clearly responds to the possibilities of a poetic text with great insight. Anna Tillbrook would appear to have the same capacity if one is to judge from the way the piano sound time and again created the world of the words. For instance, it was she ( and of the course Britten) who created quite magically at the very opening of the concert, as Canticle 1 My Beloved is Mine began, the cool rippling effect of pebbles in a pure stream by which the poet creates the quality of his love.
There was so much to note in the recital. It occurred to me that this was possibly the first time that I had been at a concert devoted entirely to British Song . Better late than never. There are music settings of poetry that have emerged in the last hundred or so year which for the first time in two centuries or more musically match the great Purcell. I remember this singer some years ago in this gallery giving a great performance of Britten’s song cycle Winter Words and I have long been convinced that there has never been a greater setter of words to music than this composer anywhere or at anytime. This was shown in the Canticle sung here which created in seven minutes a range of feeling worthy of a whole opera.
However, there is much else in the musical renaissance of the last century and in one hour this recital managed to suggest that. Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel’ perhaps does not quite feel as a song cycle a complete structure like Wintereisse but it is so wonderfully and stoically British! There’s little of what seems to me sometimes the rather wearisome breast beating so beloved of some of the Romantic German poets which Schubert often managed to convert into musical gold. Perhaps this refusal to collapse in a heap was made more obvious by having a tenor singing rather than a darker baritone. And yet the performance here did indeed remind one very powerfully of the passing of time, most notably in Whither must I wander in which the sense of times gone by was delivered with almost unbearable poignancy, worthy of Wordsworth’s great poem The Ruined Cottage. Has there ever been a greater melody written?
And what of the meat in the sandwich, only the second performance of Jonathan Dove’s new song cycle Under Alter’d Skies set to seven poems from Tennyson’s huge In Memoriam , a response to the early death of a close friend ? Well, I first heard songs by this composer in last year’s Series of Lunchtime Concerts and was mightily impressed. That is even more so now after buying Kitty Whately’s CD of his songs for mezzo soprano and having heard this work. Here is a composer with an instinctive feel for words, able to work within a largely tonal pallet and yet create a very definite musical voice. Time and again both in the voice and in the piano he seemed here to hit the mark in putting the words to music, searching out in particular the subtle changes of mood unerringly. Also, the selection of the poems did seem to create the turmoil of the heart gradually coming to terms with grief so the work had shape. First hearing suggests it most certainly deserves to be heard widely. Hopefully it will be recorded by these artists and they will return again soon with another such thought provoking and finely performed concert.