I was surprised to hear just before the concert that this was actually James Gilchrists first solo recital at the Wigmore Hall. He has been a regular there for quite some time, but never before the sole act of the night.
Upon listening to his performance of Schuberts Die schne Mllerin my surprise turned rather to astonishment. Reminded of all that makes him such an engaging singer, I couldnt help but wonder why he hadnt been asked long ago. He has already put his mark on the cycle, with his 2009 recording on the Orchid label having received widespread critical acclaim. In the flesh it sounds even better.
The achievement of Gilchrists performance is to bridge the gap between the pieces dramatic and narrative elements and its symbolic and metaphorical dimensions. The earliest song cycle to be widely performed tells of an apprenticed miller whose infatuation with the maid of the mill is not reciprocated, and Gilchrist never lets us forget that this is first and foremost a story.
In the opening Das Wandern Gilchrist embodied the role of the miller in every way. He was clearly enjoying himself, which tied in perfectly with the notion of finding joy in the act of journeying. Gilchrist himself as much as the music bounded along, there being a pleasing level of resonance in his voice that provided the song with a strong narrative thrust but never made it feel melodramatic. Over the first three songs, as throughout the evening, Gilchrist proved his ability to vary mood subtly by providing three different takes on the generally joyful theme. By being lighter in tone Gilchrist upped the sense of excitement and anticipation in Wohin? while Halt! was more forthright as it conveyed the feeling of arriving at a destination.
Across the evening the major transitions in mood were introduced with a rare combination of surprise, which helped the story seem suitably multi-faceted, and ease, which made the mood swings feel far from arbitrary. In this way, the first major change was handled superbly as Gilchrist moved on to the fourth song, Danksagung an den Bach. This is the first to be metaphysical in tone, and also the first to focus on the brook. Here, Gilchrist demonstrated his wondrous upper register, accentuating his contemplation with clasped hands or rounded arm gestures. Other contemplations in which Gilchrist emphasised the symbolic and spiritual dimensions were Die liebe Farbe and Die bse Farbe. In these, green is described as both a beloved and a hateful colour, and the former song constituted one of the most emotive performances of the evening, Gilchrist touching his nose as he whispered the lines while still maintaining superb diction.
Gilchrist also used the phrasing to heighten the sense of narrative. In Der Neugierige the briefest pause could make time and space stand still, while in Trnenregen the verses flowed one after the other with the dynamic variation that Gilchrist provided also proving crucial to the overall effect.
On his 2009 recording Gilchrist was described as portraying a young man of innocence, introspection and naivety rather than bold self-belief. This was certainly true here, but it was interesting how in Der Jger he seemed to be on the offensive while still implying that he knew this was a battle he had lost.
Anna Tilbrook, who also appeared on the 2009 recording, played superbly, ensuring that the piano part was far more than a mere accompaniment to the singing. The best was saved until last, however, as the final three songs in which the miller converses with the brook before drowning himself were steeped in beauty and pathos, Gilchrists hands raised outwards or clasped together by turns. If the extent to which an audience was moved can be judged by the gap between the final note and the start of the applause, then the long silence at the end said it all.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org