Lunchtime Series- James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, January 25th.2018

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.


Lunchtime Series: Laura van der Heijden, Petr Limonov -January11th. 2018

They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Well, when it comes to the two Lunchtime concerts that straddled the change of year from 2017 to 2018, it would appear that it can. In December we welcomed the outstanding winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing with his siblings in the Kanneh-Mason Trio. In January partnered by the pianist Petr Limonov came another cellist, Laura van der Heijden , the English born daughter of Dutch and Swiss parents and when 15 years of age the 2012 winner of the competition. The former for very good reasons has loomed large in the classical music world over the last year, the latter had until this concert escaped at least my attention. The reason was not hard to find in the programme. She has clearly, and no doubt very wisely, combined an education with a quietly burgeoning concert career. However, be in no doubt that on the evidence of this concert she belongs to what is becoming a royal line of native cellists who have been revealed by the BBC competition, two of whom ,Natalie Clein who won in 1994 and Guy Johnston in 2000, are very well known in Leicester.  In this concert she and Petr Limonov showed themselves both to be outstanding young artists.

As the music making proceeded one thing began to emerge which was not obvious before the recital. With the exception of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata I knew none of the works being performed but, having heard some of Schnittke’s and Webern’s other compositions, thought that the audience might be in for a testing hour. In fact, it emerged as a beautifully designed concert ,which in itself suggested the high musical intelligence of the designers. We were introduced to Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style ,humorous and ever alert to undermine musical expectations, expectations which were further confounded in Webern’s early Two Pieces for Cello and Piano which almost sounded like Elgar! This was followed by the ‘real’ Webern ,Op 11, which came across perhaps as the still centre of  the concert, where musical statement was stripped down to its barest essentials. Then we were shifted back in a piece by Lyadov to the kind of short work for cello late 19c. Romantic composers could toss off in their sleep, before finally being pitched into Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata Op.119 ‘s  teeming world of invention, in which the iconoclastic jostles with the romantic. It was a constantly intriguing journey. However, whilst it worked as part of a narrative musical pattern, I did wonder whether  we had in the context quite enough time to get fully attuned to Webern’s ultra cryptic utterances. In this setting did it perhaps rather invite a response of ‘So what?’, I wondered. In 2016 a performance in the Museum of music of similar aims if rather greater length, a quartet by the legendary contemporary composer Kurtag,  certainly did not invite such a response, love it or hate it.

As to the performances given by this duo, perhaps one might concentrate on the final work and for a change start by handing a bouquet to the pianist. There is sometimes an inclination to think that the pianist in a cello sonata is essentially an accompanist. Indeed, I have a CD of the Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata  issued by a major recording company not so many years ago in which the cover of the  CD is filled by a picture of the cellist with the name of the pianist consigned to the bottom corner, and this in a work written by one of the greatest pianists of all time who obviously had every intention of giving equal if not greater attention to the instrument. The same might apply to the Prokofiev Sonata written by another Russian virtuoso pianist.  To say that Petr Limonov rose to the challenge is an understatement. In the third movement there was a fine swagger to a passage that reminded one of such things as the March from the Love for Three Oranges. Throughout, the typically staccato passages in the work were delivered with a thrilling accuracy, edge and crispness. Yet what most impressed in this context were two other things , firstly the amount of shimmering crystalline sound conjured from the piano at its quieter moments and secondly that even with the piano lid fully up he never drowned the cello. That does occasionally happen when even the most experienced of artists play in this intimate space for the first time.

Not that one felt this too likely to happen to this cellist. Laura van der Heijden’s range of expressive tone and dynamics seemed to me simply breathtaking . In the early Webern and in the Lyadov the cello sang with a thrilling purity. This was warmth without any blowsiness and in the parts of the sonata where Prokofiev’s rich lyricism was to the fore we were back in the world of the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Yet she could also find so many other colours in the cello, astringency at times in the Schnittke and throughout where necessary a light and nimble fingering which made the cello sound almost skittish and dance- like.  This was cello playing worthy of being called aristocratic so entirely musical was it.

One last point. The hour and particularly the performance of the Prokofiev raised in my mind yet again the nature of musical genius. Long ago in my youth the world of music, led of course by academe, worshipped on the altar of strict sonata form and this composer was thought far too prolix for his own good. Yet, constantly and increasingly I have found pleasure and excitement in music which teems with ideas and colour even if, or perhaps because, it runs the very evident risk of spinning out of control. In another art form which I know rather more about that is one of the things that makes Shakespeare what he is. The great Dryden at the end of the 17thcentury answered the wise men of his time, who wished that  the dramatist had been born in their more polite, ordered and classical age, by simply stating that Shakespeare is the greatest of all dramatists because the whole world is in his plays. Perhaps after all we should trust the audience rather more as to what is worth listening to! Certainly this Duo produced a wonderfully invigorating hour’s entertainment and convinced me that at least I was right to follow my inclinations in regard Sergey Prokofiev.  I really do hope we shall hear these two fine musicians again soon in another programme as thought- provoking as this one.





The fine tenor James Gilchrist with pianist Anna Tilbrook returns at the next Lunchtime concert at 1.00 p.m on January 25th with a mouth- watering  programme of English song. Not to be missed.