Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Winterreise: Desolate music in beautiful surroundings

18 August 2022

The North York Moors Chamber Music Festival continues with an all-star performance.


James Gilchrist & Anna Tilbrook (Photo: Matthew Johnson)

In complete contrast to the opening night’s recital, with its intense sunlight and bucolic baa-ing sheep, this evening brought downpours and greyness, appropriate perhaps for this work of melancholy and despair. And yet, as the tenor pointed out, the ending is not despondency but a resolve to trudge on, accompanied by the drone of the hurdy-gurdy.  

How do you like your Winterreise? Do you swoon over Christian Gerhaher’s even tone, detached manner and perfection of smooth legato? Or do you lean more towards the involved, dramatic, sometimes a bit unhinged style of Florian Boesch? If it’s the former you’d have fifty fits over James Gilchrist’s searing account, perfectly matched by Anna Tilbrook’s passionate playing. Gilchrist does not narrate, he lives the poems and the music, and whilst some might find his intense desire to communicate the emotions in both, a little overwhelming, for us that is how the work should be performed. Gilchrist and Tillbrook do have one vital aspect in common with Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, in that they have been a musical partnership for decades, and it shows; singers who shop around for accompanists find it much more difficult to equal that special sense of complete understanding that comes with long collaboration.

A deeply attentive audience (it’s such a relief to find that programme origami practitioners of the Wigmore Hall have yet to influence the approach of this devoted bunch) were drawn in to Schubert’s world from the very first song, with its contrasts between the anger of ‘Was soll ich langer weilen’ and the selfless resignation of ‘Will dich im Traum nicht stören…’ and by the time we reached the exquisitely forlorn lines of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, they had us just where they wanted us, in the palms of their hands. It’s difficult to imagine a more impressive performance of this well-loved song, the only one of the set which was liked by Schubert’s friends. The grim determination of ‘Ich wandelte mich nicht’ gave way to an exceptionally fervent final stanza, singer and pianist as one in the reflection of the lover being far away from the place; that final refrain was poignant but it avoided the all too common tendency towards sentimentality.

“…James Gilchrist’s searing account, perfectly matched by Anna Tilbrook’s passionate playing”


James Gilchrist (Photo: Matthew Johnson)

‘Frühlingstraum’ is another song which can easily descend into the mawkish, but Gilchrist highlights the bitter reality of the dream which never comes true, whilst giving due weight to the intense sadness of the plea at the end; Tillbrook’s desolate postlude did not offer the narrator any consolation.

The later songs never relented in their forceful drama, with ‘Mut’ brilliantly played and sung with grim relish. ‘Die Nebensonnen’ was taken very slowly indeed, almost as a prayer, the final phrase ‘Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein’ performed with a sense of absolute desolation. ‘Der Leiermann’ closed the cycle with a sense of determination to keep going in spite of the temptation to give in to despondency, the drone of the hurdy-gurdy pulsing through the piano.

This was a very special recital indeed, and there’s a lot more to come over the next couple of weeks, with highlights being a lunchtime concert of solo lute music introduced and played by Matthew Wadsworth on the 21st, and a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet D956 on the 24th.

• Further details of the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival can be found here.

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