REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Turn Of A Century/Through War, North York Moors Chamber Music Festival

James Gilchrist: “As always, he brought intensity to every phrase, delving well below the surface of the
poetry”

North York Moors Chamber Music Festival: Turn Of A Century/Through War, Welburn Manor Marquee, August 16 and 17

FESTIVALS would not be festive if they delivered only run-of-the-mill fare. From time to time, as here, it is absolutely right that they plough new furrows.

Turn Of A Century looked at two works written by composers before they had become famous, Richard Strauss and Béla Bartók.

Strauss was a mere 20 years old when he finished his Piano Quartet in C minor (1884). It is the work of a young man striving hard to make an impression but by and large falling short.

Neither of the opening themes has much character and sound like Brahms on an off day. The Scherzo is even more bombastic while its trio has a pallid melody that lacks definition. The Andante might have been written by Schumann, but with a whiff of the salon about it. The finale uses motifs in a series of sequences that are ultimately repetitious. In short, not exactly vintage Strauss.

Daniel Lebhardt, no doubt in an effort to ‘help’ the music, brought considerable aggression to the piano role; too many of his fortes were fortissimo or louder. It put the strings at a disadvantage, although they – Charlotte Scott, Meghan Cassidy and Alice Neary – dug in and answered as best they could. There was a brief oasis of calm near the end, but otherwise it was a harum-scarum affair, good to hear once, but no more than that.

Bartók’s youth was altogether more disciplined, on the evidence of his Piano Quintet in C,
composed at the age of 23. Here there were genuine precursors of his mature style, with strongly Hungarian flavours throughout.

The richly Romantic opening contrasts a lovely viola melody – played here by Timothy Ridout – with a nervy, urgent dance, which returns even more balletically in the coda.
An ethnic-sounding Scherzo is paired with a Viennese-style trio, before the menacing opening of a slow movement that turns quite lush and ends with strings muted.

The finale, following immediately, starts in folk-dance style very slowly, gathering pace wittily. There are some spaces for ruminative solos, but eventually a fugal finale boils up from the piano – crisply delivered by Katya Apekisheva, on peerless form at this festival.

But all the players deserve praise for their devotion to a work not often heard: violinists Maria Włoszczowska and Vicky Sayles and cellist Jamie Walton, along with Ridout and
Apekisheva as mentioned. Their teamwork was exceptional.

The following evening’s Through War heralded an English programme that required the services of tenor James Gilchrist and a dozen players. The undoubted highlight was Gilchrist in On Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams’s evocative setting of six poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, with piano quintet accompaniment.

What really made this performance special was his recitation of the poems in advance, loaded with emotional nuance. It made one appreciate even more the composer’s
special feel for the English language, its intonation and rhythm.

As always, Gilchrist brought intensity to every phrase, delving well below the surface of the
poetry. His contrast between living and dead voices in Is My Team Ploughing? reached a spine-chilling conclusion on “whose”.

His change of tone in Bredon Hill was telling. But he was matched every step of the way by the strings, whose orchestral sweep extended from the opening tremolos – “On Wenlock
Edge the wood’s in trouble” – to the muted ending of Clun. Alasdair Beatson’s piano rippled
effectively, while underlining accents. They all got carried away at the top of Bredon Hill, where Gilchrist was briefly submerged. But it was a memorable account.

We had opened with York Bowen’s Clarinet Sonata, with Matthew Hunt dancing light-footedly through the roulades of the title role and Beatson’s piano in tight support. Hunt later cleverly blended his virtuoso instincts into the ensemble in Howells’s Rhapsodic Quintet, where he was joined by a passionate string quartet led by Charlotte Scott.

The tension of the opening slowly dissipated into a lyrical mood that led coolly to a lovely conclusion. The score sounded freshly-minted, beautifully integrated – and thoroughly English.

The Jubilee Quartet, with David Adams bravely stepping into their injured leader’s shows,
revealed its versatility in Elgar’s String Quartet. Adams is widely experienced, currently concertmaster with the orchestra of Welsh National Opera and incidentally husband of the cellist Alice Neary (who played in the Howells).

Nevertheless, the voices took time to settle in an opening that was more calculated than spontaneous. Adams really found his wings in the central movement, guiding his charges
into a nicely controlled ending. Then the quartet reached persuasive heights in a finale that was both rhythmically alert and bouncing with energy. The best had been kept to last.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 4, June 20

Tenor James Gilchrist: “Special brand of urgency, sometimes bordering on missionary zeal”

Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 4: James Gilchrist / Finale, Leeds Town Hall, 20/6/2021

A PARTICULARLY well-structured programme, entitled O Solitude, occurred at lunchtime on the final day, with tenor James Gilchrist and his piano-partner of more than two decades, Anna Tillbrook.

Using Purcell’s eponymous song as his springboard, he then embarked on Schubert’s Einsamkeit, three of Barber’s Hermit Songs and a cycle Gilchrist had commissioned in 2017 from Jonathan Dove, Under Alter’d Skies.

During the Purcell, given in Britten’s realisation, we could only marvel at the range of vocal invention the composer achieved in no less than 28 repetitions of a ground bass. Gilchrist positively revelled in its drooping intervals, penetrating the bitter-sweet pleasures of the Katherine Philips poem (itself a translation from Marc-Antoine de Gérard).

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Schubert is his earliest song-cycle (1818), being six poems by Mayrhofer tagged together on the model of Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte, which was written two years earlier. The poetry outlines a life-cycle, beginning and ending with a wish for solitude, after progressing through a desire for activity, good fellowship, bliss and gloom in turn.

Pianist Anna Tilbrook: “Fine support”

Gilchrist brought to it his own special brand of urgency, sometimes bordering on missionary zeal, in which he contrasted the various moods with an underlying yearning for nature. Thus the rat-race was tinged with regret. Even the central waltz dissolved into rueful recitative. Tilbrook’s fine support peaked in the militaristic regions of the ‘rapture’ section. It was a splendid account of a work that is seriously underperformed.

He chose three of Barber’s ten Hermit Songs, which are settings of early mediaeval poems in modern translations. Their spare harmonies certainly speak of a less complicated era, but heard in Schubert’s wake they lacked a certain humanity. The Monk And His Cat conjured the warmest response.

Jonathan Dove selected seven cantos (out of 133) from Tennyson’s In Memoriam for his cycle Under Alter’d Skies. They deal with the solitude after a close friendship has ended, in Tennyson’s case after the early death of his close friend Arthur Hallam. Dove handles this tricky task with admirable composure and Gilchrist at first suppressed his natural enthusiasm to reflect the poet’s inner turmoil.

Change came in Tonight The Winds Begin To Rise, where the piano’s moto perpetuo was reflected in the tenor’s mounting urgency, and a ‘gleam of solace’ broke through in the upward-rushing phrases of the following song, With Weary Steps. After a return of disillusion and an ironic peace, Dove (with Tennyson) finally detects balm in nature, echoing Mayrhofer, which was pictured in a rising tide of emotion from both performers. Dove’s cycle is well worth the love that this duo lavished on it.

The whole of this programme, including the Barber cycle in its entirety, was issued only last summer on the Chandos label. On this evidence, it’s a must-buy.

* * * *

Baritone Roderick Williams: “Tongue firmly in his cheek, enjoying every minute of it”

THE closing recital was a pot-pourri devised and performed by soprano Carolyn Sampson, baritone Roderick Williams and pianist and festival director Joseph Middleton. Here were songs traditionally reserved for a female voice sung by a male, and vice versa. Apart from some other musical byplay, we had a new commission by Leeds Lieder from Hannah Kendall. Finally, the audience was given a list of three dozen songs, some in German, others in English, and allowed to choose what should be sung.

Sampson opened up with two songs from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin – normally male territory, of course. She loved it and so did we. In ‘Mein’, she soared and so did the piano. She also produced a magical ending to ‘Pause’. Getting his own back, Williams took two songs out of Schumann’s Frauenliebe Und–Leben with his tongue firmly in his cheek, enjoying every minute of it.

With gender politics now firmly on the menu, Hannah Kendall’s new work Rosalind set parts of five poems by Sabrina Mahfouz. The first-person narrator here seemed to veer between femaleness and maleness like a chameleon, reacting to outside influences – until at the end speaking boldly as a woman: “You do not get to dress me anymore”.

Soprano Carolyn Sampson: “She loved it and so did we.” Picture: Marco Borggeve

Kendall found a great deal more variety in her piano accompaniments than in her treatment of the voices, which was generally limited to slow-moving, ruminative lines that cannot have taxed these singers. It was hard not to feel that this was an opportunity if not wasted, at least under-exploited. But her 15-minute score fell easily on the ear and the texts emerged clearly.

The remainder of the evening relied on a roving microphone picking up viewpoints from the audience, before the brave decision to accept requests. All were accepted graciously, with Sampson excelling in Schumann’s Röselein and Williams making hay with York composer George Butterworth’s Loveliest Of Trees and Britten’s arrangement of The Foggy, Foggy Dew.

Middleton proved himself extremely versatile, as ever. The consistently high calibre of the performances made up for the improvisational nature of much of the proceedings.

Martin Dreyer