Last year, tenor James Gilchrist visited Bangor University to perform Franz Schubert’s song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Miller-Maid). He returned last Thursday (29th January) to a three-quarters-full Powis Hall to give a recital of that composer’s other great – many would say greater – song-cycle, Winterreise (Winter Journey).
Gilchrist used to be a doctor before turning to singing full-time some twenty years ago. I just hope he never had to do surgery or go poking in any orifice, as the first thing I noticed was his hands. They could not keep still. They’d reach out as if to embrace the world and all its problems. It could have been expressive had the hands not been retracted just a second later, cupped to the breast as if in realisation that no, the world isn’t to be embraced after all. It hurts the heart.
Then they’d go out again. Then in, out, in, out, you shake it all a… you get the picture. Gestures like that can be very effective if done with confidence and purpose. The equally effective alternative is to keep hands at the side at all times. Halfway between the two is just distracting.
The hand bone’s connected to the arm bone, the arm bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, the shoulder bone’s connected to the neck bone, the neck bone’s connected to the head bone, and it’s this head bone that was also grooving to the beat. During the second song, ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The Weathervane) there were two consecutive triplets, and on each note Gilchrist changed the angle of his head: up, left, left, up, right, up. Six twitches in half as many seconds. Again, it’s difficult to tell if this was intentional or uncontrollable. For a singer of his experience I would expect the former, but it looked so out of place that I can only assume the latter.
Bizarrely, twitch as the tenor might throughout the seventy-five minutes, he barely made eye contact with his audience. With head up, he strained his stare towards the ground; with head down, he looked up at the ceiling. We might as well not have been there.
I understand the need to “do” something, to “show” something. When standing alone on stage with just a pianist for support, there’s a tendency to want to give too much, to throw your emotions at the albeit well-behaved mob. Except for the inconsiderate lady whose desire for a sweet from a crinkly, crackly wrapper takes precedence over the music and everyone else’s desire to hear it. There’s always one, and there’s always the urge to throw something much more solid than emotions in her direction.
But I digress.
You want to give too much. But the reason why Armani’s are the best perfumes for men is not because they assault the senses with their pungency but for the precise opposite: they lure in you with their subtlety.
The same is true for a recital. Intimacy is the goal; charm and subtlety are key. Stand your ground and let your voice alone do the work. A calm, crystal, careful voice will bring even the most dentist-doting sweet-sucker to silence and make the whole room enthralled, leaning forward on the ends of their seats. Head-twitching, arm-stretching and hand-cupping done half-heartedly and ad nauseam are, in translation, distracting, intimidating and overcompensating.
What of Gilchrist’s voice? It was bright, bold and strong. It was, to use singing terminology, “well-connected”. But that description fitted only fleeting phrases, such as the final lines of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ (Frozen Tears) and ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood Water). It’s disappointing that it required loudness – these are some of the loudest lines in the cycle – to reach this quality. It also proved to be unsustainable, as exposed by a hairline crack during an extended forte passage in ‘Auf dem Fluße’ (On the River).
The rest of the time Gilchrist’s voice was far too light, seemingly singing at times in his head. There was no sense of the solemnity that Winterreise demands, no gravitas to anchor the hero’s feelings to his fate. Gilchrist was vacant and the hero, consequently, vague.
Being a baritone myself, I suspected some typical anti-tenor bias was at play so vowed to listen to a recording of a top tenor when the concert was over, just to check. I gave Gilchrist the benefit of the doubt and blamed it on the acoustics of Powis Hall. But come ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The Linden Tree), voice and song suited one another perfectly. Why? Because the music is slow and sweet. It’s the lightest lied out of the twenty-four, and Gilchrist’s wispy tones gently floated over the frosty winter scene about which he sang. And the other twenty-three? Instead of treading cautiously into the crisp, white snow, Gilchrist’s voice was simply swept away by the wintery wind.
Accompanying Gilchrist on piano was Sholto Kynoch, an Honorary Research Fellow of Bangor University and a regular at concerts here. He played strongly and steadily with little sense of rubato – give-and-take in the timing of the music – that characterises much music of the Romantics. It meant that although Gilchrist and Kynoch were very much together and connected during the whole seventy-five minutes, they were “connected” like a sidecar is connected to a motorbike: by a steel rod. And with solid step-wise movement and an unforgiving drive even when a lighter touch was called for, Kynoch was most definitely the motorbike; Gilchrist was relegated to sidecar. A less rigid, more malleable material, such as a rope that tethers two mutually free ships closely together, would have been more appropriate.
Despite this rigidity – indeed, because of it – there was no deeper musical relationship between Gilchrist and Kynoch. The only relationship was a physical one, with the tenor employing the cliché of holding onto the Steinway frame every now and then, presumably in those rare moments when he became conscious of his hopeless, hapless hands.
It can’t be denied that Gilchrist is a considerable singer, especially in the world of early music and English song, where he has achieved such success. No doubt his success is due to the special quality of his voice. Special though it may be, it’s one overtone short of Schubertian.
Oh, and in case you’re interested, I did listen to a recording by a top tenor: Ian Bostridge. I’m loath to admit it but must: I now prefer his rendition to those of German baritones like Christian Gerhaher, Olaf Bär, and even “The King of Lieder Singers” Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. But Bostridge is English. And a tenor. I don’t know which of those is the more embarrassing feature of my newfound infatuation.
James Gilchrist will be performing the role of Hyllus in Handel’s Hercules at Birmingham Town Hall on 1st March and at the Barbican Centre, London on 4th March.