James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Indeed, it was Beethoven’s six songs (To the Distant Beloved) — settings
of texts by the minor poet, Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858) which are united by the
idea or motif of love filtered through images of the idealised pastoral —
which were most imaginative and impressive, as Gilchrist and his accompanist
Anna Tilbrook swept seamlessly through the sequence, conveying the
impetuousness and naivety of the enamoured young poet-speaker and the
all-encompassing nature of his obsession with his beloved.

In the opening song, Gilchrist’s light tone was just right for the young
man’s nostalgic recollections of the distant meadows where he first met his
loved one as well as the wistful sadness of their subsequent separation. The
introspective yearning of the second song, in which the poet longs to be at his
lover’s side was beautifully evoked. Tilbrook crafted a lovely melodic line
in the second stanza, as the voice repeated a single note over several bars,
perfectly embodying the sentiments of the text which paints an image of
stillness and the quiet observation of nature: ‘Still die Primmel dort sinnt,
/Weht so leise der Wind/ Mˆchte ich sein!’ (the primrose meditates in
silence, and the wind blows so softly — there would I be!).

‘Leichter Segler in den Hˆhen’ (Light clouds sailing on high) was light
of tread but had a rhythmic persuasiveness, and the move to the minor for the
final stanzas was tellingly pointed; indeed, throughout the recital Tilbrook
shaped the harmonic pathways with discernment. In this Beethoven sequence the
varied, developing accompaniments were fresh and compelling, and transitions
between songs fluently executed, with some well-judged pauses, relaxations and
surges of tempo.

After the simplicity of the first five strophic forms, Gilchrist employed
the through-composed structure of the final song to shape a convincing
conclusion. In the slow opening line, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese lieder’
(Accept, then, these songs) the legato was disarming, and he made effective use
of a hushed head voice as the sun’s rays faded ‘Hinter jener Bergeshˆh’
(behind those mountain heights).

The smooth grace of Gilchrist’s tenor and his unmannered attentiveness to
musical and verbal nuances seemed especially well-suited to these Beethoven
song. Tilbrook, too, demonstrated a dexterous technique and thoughtful touch,
creating fleeting textures to capture the ‘pure’ sounds of the romantic

Scubert’s Rellstab settings which opened the concert, though they share
Beethoven’s theme of love for a distant beloved, were less settled and
focused; despite Gilchrist’s close observance of detail and his mellifluous
delivery, he didn’t quite capture the darker side of the spirit of
‘Sehnsucht’ which is innate to these songs. The most successful of the set
were the final two, ‘In der Ferne’ (Far away) and ‘Abschied’
(Farewell), in which the colours and tempo perfectly matched the poetic

There were some engaging individual readings too: ‘Kreigers Ahnung’
(Warrior’s foreboding) was slow and ominous of tempo, and Tilbrook created a
sense of resounding expanse in the incisive rhythms and broad phrases.
Gilchrist was unfailingly alert to the individual words and to the poem’s
rapid fluctuations of mood, although occasionally such attentiveness resulted
in a loss of naturalness: the line ‘Von Sehnsucht mir so heifl’ (so afire
with longing) was deliberately heightened, not without effect, but its
repetition was troubled by a wavering vibrato which weakened the melodic form
— a problem that was not reserved for this song.

In ‘St‰ndchen’ (Serenade), Gilchrist displayed a soft gentleness ideal
for embodying the nocturnal song and moonlit rustlings and whispers. And, in
‘Fr¸hlings-Sehnsucht’ (Spring longing) he used vocal colour to create a
searching air; the queries which end each stanza — ‘Wohin?’,
‘Warum?’, ‘Und Du?’ — were tentatively posed, rather than rhetorical,
creating a touching vulnerability and pathos.

The Heine settings had more intensity and drama, not surprisingly as the
poetry leaves behind Rellstab’s sighing breezes and rippling streams and
enters bleaker realms of suffering and isolation. ‘Atlas’ was powerfully
rhetorical, with Tilbrook’s accompaniment fittingly heavy and laboured, but
Gilchrist still did not quite convince as one wholly wretched, who has the
weight of the world, and its suffering, upon his shoulders. While ‘Ihr
Bild’ (Her likeness) was beautifully restrained, ‘Das Fischerm‰dchen’
(The fishermaiden) had a bright energy and warm optimism.

The performers shaped the emotional climax of ‘Die Stadt’ (The town)
with skill. The cool distance of the opening, as the turrets of the town loom
mistily on the remote horizon, built to a pained intensity in the final line,
‘Wo ich das Liebste verlor’ (where I lost what I loved most) as the
sun-drenched vision of the poet-speaker’s painful memory gleamed forth. An
adventurously wide dynamic range was employed to suggest the insidious presence
and danger of the wraith which haunts the poet-speaker in the final song of the
Heine sequence, ‘Der Doppelg‰nger’; and, once more, Gilchrist and Tilbrook
graded the escalation of the speaker’s despair, the riskily slow tempo of the
first stanza surging in the last, as the tone grew ever more fierce and

Throughout the programme, Gilchrist displayed an attractive, relaxed middle
register, some interesting colours at the bottom and a dreamy head voice; but
in the Schubert songs when the dynamic rose in the upper range the voice seemed
somewhat tense. Tilbrook was alert to the word- and mood-painting in
Schubert’s accompaniments but sometimes the pictorial gestures were a little
too deliberate, as in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) where the brook
bubbled rather than murmured; and her use of rubato was at times overly

Unfailingly pleasing, this recital was meticulous in preparation and
execution; perhaps too much so, in that Gilchrist never seemed to ‘inhabit’
the songs, rather to deliver them albeit with intelligence and skill; it all
sounded rather too ‘nice’. But, that is scarcely a criticism — and
perhaps a personal taste. For, while Gilchrist may not quite have the range of
tones and shades to plummet the Romantic essence of these songs, he and
Tilbrook demonstrated appreciable insight and care for the music.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London,
Thursday 17th July 2014.

Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang D957; Ludwig van Beethoven:
An die ferne Geliebte Op.98

image_description=James Gilchrist
product_title=James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: James Gilchrist