Leaving Kings Place after hearing James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook perform Winterreise, I walked out into a blizzard.
But rather than cowering from the onslaught, I surged onwards, buoyed by the searing, life-giving rendition I had just experienced.
For, as Gilchrist explained in his pre-performance talk, his view of Schubert’s late masterpiece is not one fettered with unending misery and premonitions of death.
His view is not solely of the lonely protagonist grimly trudging onwards to oblivion; rather, there are many moments of retrospection, of recalling happier times, of ardour and passion. And although we know that the journey will ultimately end in nothingness a ‘living death’, as Gilchrist put it one only really feels the full effect of the relentlessness of the second half of the cycle if it follows a less despairing first half, on which fateful omens have not yet begun to intrude.
Winterreise has so much become the domain of baritones and basses, with mellower timbres, that it is easy to forget that the protagonist is, as in Die schne Mllerin, a young man. Songs such as ‘Die Wetterfahne’ and ‘Rckblick’, which can sound laboured and ponderous in a lower voice, were from Gilchrist rightly snarling and scornful, full of youthful rashness; furthermore, hearing the cycle sung by a tenor brought with it a freshness that accorded with the less doom-laden view that Gilchrist had expounded.
And this freshness was a result not just of higher keys: Gilchrist has obviously poured his entire being into his approach to Winterreise, and never before have I heard a recitalist who so gave the impression of performing music as he or she formed it in the imagination, of ‘living’ the music. A technical analysis of his performance would probably attack such things as excessive body movement, coming off the voice mid-note, shouting and huffing, but such matters are inconsequential in live performance.
A far cry from the deliberateness of Fischer-Dieskau or the gravitas of Hotter, Gilchrist’s Winterreise is that of a master story-teller: we saw the river frozen over with ice, the crow circling overhead, felt the snow in our faces, and shuddered with him as the protagonist’s world slowly collapsed to leave only the solitary figure of the hurdy-gurdy player in the final song.
Nor was it all about the singer: Tilbrook has that rarest of qualities, the ability subtly to vary her attack, her beginnings and ends of notes, to match a singer’s breathing and articulation. It goes without saying that she accompanied superbly; more than that, she played as one with Gilchrist, surging and subsiding with his bursts of anger and passion, and depicting with chilling clarity the icy landscapes of the texts.
Sure, there was the odd slip from both performers, but of the smallest order, and one could sense that these arose only from the urgency and spontaneity with which they told their story. Such are the risks that musicians take when aiming at greatness, and greatness is what was heard on that cold winter’s night.