Concert review: Poems from a foreign land

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James Gilchrist, tenor
Anna Tilbrook, pianoAs a singer myself, songs in a foreign language always present challenges. Not only are there tricky pronunciations to distract me, but also there are the complexities of communicating the song's meaning.  The composers featured in the first half of this concert, held at the Holywell Music Room on 21st January, must have experienced similar challenges.James Gilchrist opened the programme with two settings of Shakespeare in German, which could not have failed to be interesting for a native English speaker.  Schubert is the comfort food of the lieder audience, allowing us to ease away from the wet January night outside into a world where, in the words of the second song, Ständchen: "Der Ringelblume Knospe schleußt / Die goldnen Äuglein auf" ("The marigold's bud opens its golden eyes").  Here Gilchrist first allowed the full power of his voice to fill the Holywell's delicate acoustic, exhorting "Da süße Maid, steh auf!" ("Sweet maid Arise!").After these musical hors d'oeuvres, Gilchrist introduced a much meatier course: excerpts from the Italienisches Liederbuch, set by Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), which as Italian folk-poems, set in German by a German composer, continued the concert's theme ideally.  According to Gilchrist "they explore the Italian quality of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve"— which was exactly where Gilchrist proceeded to wear it!  A particularly operatic performance was given in "Hoffärtig seid Ihr, schönes Kind" ("You are haughty, beautiful child"), which reached the impassioned climax “Willst du nicht Liebe, nimm Verachtung hin” ("If you don't want love, take scorn").  Not all the songs relied on powerful actions in the singer's body for effect: in "Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen" ("And if you would see your lover die"), Gilchrist slowly, and movingly, spread out his arms from his chest, and remained almost motionless for the final excerpt, "Sterb ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder"
("When I die, cover my limbs in flowers").The anonymous medieval Irish monks who scrawled in the margins of manuscripts could never have imagined that their fragments would be collected, almost a millennium later, by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) into the eclectic Hermit Songs.  For Gilchrist, the monks' uncanny insights are both "deeply heartfelt moments of reflection, but also of a remarkably profane nature."  This comic side was particularly apparent in "Promiscuity", which features speculation on a fellow monk's bedfellow that night, and in "The heavenly banquet", containing the unforgettable line: "I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings."  More sublime was "St Ita's vision", a soaring lullaby, and "The monk and his cat", which would resonate with any work-weary student who takes solace in the companionship of a pet!  At various points in the programme Gilchrist tried, with varying success, to create a whispering tone in the intimate acoustic of the Holywell, but pulled this off most convincingly in the sustained last note of "At St Patrick's Purgatory".After these exotic, culture-crossing songs, Gilchrist indulged the audience in the second-half with some thoroughly English material: Britten's Winter Words, settings of poems by Thomas Hardy.  Here we saw Gilchrist the storyteller, subtly modulating his voice to take on roles of narrator, vicar, young boy and even the creak of a little old table in the imaginatively titled "The Little Old Table".  From the entire programme, the Britten gave most opportunity for the piano, from the train horn and click of wheel on rail, in "Midnight on the Great Western", to the strains of a fiddle in "The Convict and the Boy with the Violin". Gilchrist and Tilbrook made an impressive pairing, managing entries and co-ordination flawlessly without need for eye-contact.Last year saw many composers’ anniversaries, and Gilchrist was quick to point out in his introduction that 2008 is the 50th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan-Williams' death.  The programme concluded with six songs from this quintessentially English composer and collector of folk-songs, including the old favourite "Linden Lea", as well as the lesser known "Winter's Willow".  The final song of the concert was "The sky above the roof", a translation from French of a Verlaine poem.At the risk of overusing culinary metaphors, the encore, Quilter's "Go, lovely rose" reminded me of Worcester College's lemon tarts: a little too sweet and intense.  But I would not hesitate to recommend Gilchrist and Tilbrook for a Michelin star!by Matthew Silverman

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