James Gilchrist and the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall

On a day that the retiring Bishop of Liverpool described the culture of politics ‘right across the west’ as ‘adversarial, scratchy, exhausted’ and ‘rancid and dangerous’, the words of Dame Myra Hess that were printed on the front of the programme book for this Nash Ensemble recital at Wigmore Hall made a strong impact: ‘It is up to every human being to try to contribute to the future decency of mankind.’

In their current series of concerts, Wigmore Hall’s Chamber Ensemble in Residence is recreating some of the lunchtime recitals that were performed at the National Gallery during the Second World War under Hess’s visionary leadership.  It’s a series that reminds us that ‘culture’ and ‘war’ don’t have to be twinned in a combative compound, creating division and disharmony, and – as Europe once again seems to be staring down the barrel of a gun – that while Burns was right that ‘Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn!’, art can embody the very best of man.

The first half of the programme recreated an all-Mendelssohn concert which was presented at the National Gallery on 21st February 1940 by pianist Margaret Good, violinist Harry Blech and cellist William Pleeth.  Adrian Bendel and Alasdair Beatson (the latter replacing the indisposed Simon Crawford-Phillips) conjured youthful brio in the Allegro assai vivace which open Mendelssohn’s Sonata in D Op.58 for cello and piano, Brendel’s vibrato wide and free, and the springy rhythms and melodism creating a joyful exuberance.  Beatson’s fingers ran lightly round the fistfuls of notes that Mendelssohn prescribes.  There was a delicate whimsey about the Allegretto scherzando, and a lovely clarity to the counterpoint, while the Trio’s theme was shaped into a beautifully elegant line, gently propelled by the piano’s syncopations.  The spread chords of the Adagio suggests expansiveness, but the movement had an apt tension, as the performers responded to harmonic nuances; and, after an agitated opening, the Finale: Allegro assai appassionato whipped up a playful spirit which overflowed the brim in the exciting coda.

Two ‘Songs Without Words’ followed, Beatson capturing the surging density of Op.53 No.3 and the cantabile ease of Op.19 No.1.  Then, violinist Stephanie Gonley joined Beatson and Brendel in a stirring rendition of Mendelssohn’s D Minor Piano Trio.  In the Molto allegro agitato, the trio exploited the innate strength and power of the basic musical motifs to create sustained momentum and tension throughout the long movement, maintaining, too, clarity of texture even in the most turbulent passages.  They let the dust settle before cleansing the air with the essentially Mendelssohnian sweetness of the Andante con molto tranquillo, the delicate trickle of the piano accompaniment supporting a lovely stream of melody which admitted shadows – Beatson ‘turned the corner’ into the central minor-key episode with discernment – but retained its assurance and resolve.  The sprites were back in the Scherzo but the movement was not ‘slight’, the stature of its statements and the firmness of its structure always evident.  Starting as if the drama was already well underway, the final Allegro assai appassionato had tremendous rhythmic energy, the motifs effectively individualised within the fierce counterpoint, the movement acquiring an almost Brahmsian compass.

The musicians’ smiles were broad as they accepted the warm applause of the Wigmore Hall audience, and tenor James Gilchrist continued the spirit of pleasurable domestic music-making among friends when, after the interval, he and pianist Simon Lepper performed the programme which had been presented at the National Gallery on 7th October 1943 by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten – or, almost that programme, the indisposition of Crawford-Phillips leadings to the replacement of Michael Tippett’s cantata Boyhood’s End with five songs from Britten’s song-cycle Winter Words.

Gilchrist is such an engaging performer: modest of demeanour, but unwaveringly self-composed, he makes every individual listener feel as if he is communicating directly with them.  His lovely sweet-toned tenor would seem just right for Dowland’s ayres, but I have to say that on this occasion I felt that he rather ‘over-did’ the ‘heartfelt’ quality of the three lute songs that we heard.  It’s unusual to complain that a singer gave too much weight to the words, but these songs divulge their true meaning through the symbols and shared secrets nestled within their textual conceits – the lyrics do, of course, need to be enunciated with elegance but they do their own talking, as the harmonies and textures of the accompaniment whisper inferences and implorations.   ‘Awake! Sweet love’ was the best of the three, Gilchrist’s natural feeling for the pace and shape of the vocal phrasing doing full justice to Dowland’s simple but flawlessly turned melody.  Here and elsewhere, Lepper kept the accompaniment airy and tender, and there were some lovely lute-like curlicues and flourishes which provided gentle momentum.  Gilchrist effectively used vocal colour to point the harmonic aches of ‘In darkness let me dwell’, but generally worked a bit too hard with the textual repetitions, with the result that the melancholy seemed somewhat fragmented – and, unusually, the final vocal fall, after the piano has closed on an open cadence, was slightly fussy.

The tenor judged the spirit of Purcell’s theatre songs perfectly, though, fittingly boisterous and bright-toned in the coloratura mad-song, ‘I’ll sail upon the dog-star’, then segueing effortless through the swiftly changing moods – confident, restless, crestfallen, reproachful – of ‘There’s not a swain of the plain’.  The declamatory rhetoric of ‘Not all my torments’ was aptly intense, while ‘On the brow of Richmond Hill’ was infectiously charming, Gilchrist delighting in Purcell’s convivial word-painting and the ironic shift of the poet-speaker’s adulation from the verdant vistas of the Thames valleys to the visage of the ‘lovely Cynthia’ whose ‘brighter glories’ are divine.

The imagery of Thomas Hardy’s poems as set by Britten in Winter Words was beautifully rendered by Gilchrist and Lepper.  The purity and warmth of Gilchrist’s tenor drew the listener into the poet-speaker’s nostalgic reflections in ‘At day-close in November’.  The upward flourishes of Lepper’s introductory phrase created a forward motion which pressed through the song, Gilchrist imbuing the gently undulating melodic line with a sense of the restlessness and passionate feeling that is present in the poem.  The final stanza, in which the poet-speaker strives to see from the perspective of the children who ramble indifferently amid the pine trees that he planted many years ago, was tinged with both sweetness and sorrow, the gentle chordal accompaniment and whispered dynamic displacing, temporarily, the earlier impatient mood.

The two miniatures, ‘The little old table’ and ‘Proud songsters’, were brilliantly done – the first urgent and equivocal, the histories hidden in the table’s ‘creak’ undivulged, the second almost fiercely impetuous.  ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ was simply masterly.  Gilchrist was an effortlessly engaging storyteller, his Finzi-esque lyricism drawing us into the intimacy of memory as the poet-speaker told of the former choirmaster’s wish that on his death his favourite psalm, ‘Mount Ephraim’, be played beside his grave – the lightness of Gilchrist’s dotted-rhythm melisma elevated the imagined seraphic vision that might ensue.  Gilchrist, hands clutched tightly together, head patronisingly tilted, was the embodiment of self-important hypocrisy as he relayed the words of the vicar who – eager to get through the service as quickly as possible – denies this wish.  The final image of the band, “all in white,/ Like saints in church-glass”, that the astonished cleric espies one night, singing and playing by the choirmaster’s grave, was both conspiratorial and passionate.  

Gilchrist and Lepper closed with ‘Midnight on the Great Western’, Lepper leaving the piano’s first jangle hanging poignantly in the air, before the engine’s motions started their dry, jiggety progress.  The earnestness of Gilchrist’s flexible vocal line captured the struggle of the poet-speaker to penetrate the private, inner world of the young ‘journeying boy’ who is travelling alone.  At the close, the mimetic train-whistle is heard one last time, ‘from afar’, and Lepper’s subtle, elegiac falling away made the clang seem to resonate into that ‘world unknown’ towards which the boy is travelling.

Our spirits were lifted by four of the folk-song arrangements which Britten and Pears first began to perform as encores during their years in the US during the Second World War.  Gilchrist sings these songs with effortless panache.  ‘The Salley Gardens’ was beautifully nuanced, the poet-speaker’s acknowledgement that he was “young and foolish” delicately coloured when repeated, deepening the pathos.  The light-hearted step of ‘Little Sir William’ slipped disturbing into a heavy tread, while Gilchrist summoned an authentic brogue for the regal grandiosity of ‘The bonny Earl o’ Moray’.  What else could we close with but ‘I wonder as I wander’: simple, sparse, soothing.

That wasn’t quite the end, though.  Gilchrist sent us home in high spirits with a good-hearted romp through Britten’s over-blown arrangement of the French traditional song, ‘Eho! Eho!’

Claire Seymour

Nash Ensemble, Alasdair Beatson (piano), Simon Lepper (piano), Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), James Gilchrist (tenor)

Mendelssohn – Cello Sonata No.2 in D Op.58, Song without Words in G minor Op.53 No.3 and in E Op.19b No.1, Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.49; Dowland (1563-1626) – ‘Awake, sweet love’, ‘In darkness let me dwell’, ‘Come, heavy sleep’; Purcell – ‘I’ll sail upon the dog-star’, ‘There’s not a swain on the plain’, ‘Not all my torments can your pity move’, ‘On the brow of Richmond Hill’;  BrittenWinter Words Op.52 (‘At day-close in November’, ‘The little old table’, ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’, ‘Proud songsters’, ‘Midnight on the Great Western’), ‘The Salley Gardens’, ‘Little Sir William’, The Bonny Earl o’ Moray’, ‘I wonder as I wander’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 12th February 2022.