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Seen and Heard  Interview

The importance of not always being yourself: Tenor James Gilchrist talks to Anne Ozorio (AO)


James Gilchrist. Picture © John Haxby

James Gilchrist’s direct, vivid approach to song has made him one of the most refreshing tenors to emerge in the last few years.  He talked recently to Anne Ozorio about his music.

Before becoming a professional singer, Gilchrist was a doctor, but his love for music started at an early age. “As a boy, I was surrounded by music. I was a chorister in one of the chapel choirs in Oxford and even in the local church enjoyed what I heard there.  Naturally, most of the material was great standard English choral tradition.  We are lucky that we have such a rich heritage in this country, Byrd, Tallis, Purcell.  So my roots are in Renaissance and 19th /20th century English music.  However, Edward Higginbotham, who conducted the New College Choir had a strong interest in French repertoire as well, and introduced French and German music even to the boys choir, which was relatively unusual at that time. In those days, the Iberian and South American early music we hear now wasn’t well known.  So I was drawn towards art song, and chamber music with song, which inevitably means the Austro-German mainstream.  Music is a powerful spiritual and artistic mode of communication and art song in particular, which is based on poetry, has huge emotional content. I feel, sometimes, that I come alive when I can convey that in my singing.” One might observe that music isn’t really so different from medicine in terms of positive benefits for listeners and performers. As Gilchrist adds, “art is not an optional extra tacked onto the “real” purpose of life seen narrowly in terms of making money and big business.  Art is what we’re here for, it’s a way of expressing what makes us human”.

Gilchrist specialises in English art song. His most recent recording (See details and review on Linn records) is superlative.  It includes the chamber version of On Wenlock Edge, and two lesser-known gems of the English repertoire, Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme and Warlock’s The Curlew. It’s superlative. Gilchrist’s pure, lucid singing is all the more effective because his approach is so direct and natural.  What gives him this affinity for English song ?  “It is”, he says, “a kind of “English disease” not to value what is home grown.  It’s as if we’re too self-effacing, too reticent, and assume that major works of art can only come from outside.  But English art song is very fine work indeed.”  The new recording is also unusual because it features music for tenor, piano and strings. On Wenlock Edge is of course one of the most important works in the whole English canon, and Gilchrist captures its poignant spirit with sensitivity.  The Gurney cycle, though, is rarer, and Gilchrist’s version is exceptional, exquisitely intelligent and moving.  Several of these Housman poems were set by Butterworth, so why the Gurney settings ?  “Gurney’s settings are wonderful, almost disarmingly naïve at times, and very innocent in the finest sense of the word”, says Gilchrist, “yet there are moments of outstanding beauty which spring off the page with a real freshness which is very unusual.  You can almost feel the air and the wind and the moment that is passing.  The poems themselves have an almost childlike purity although they deal with profound subjects, and the settings suit that so well.  The song Far in a Western Brookland, is astonishing. It’s all set in D flat major , so it’s very misty, ethereal and yet earthy.  You can sense the mist rising from the grass in the early morning.  It never rises above piano. This low setting really captures the intense longing to be elsewhere, far away”

“Then, in contrast, is Gurney’s approach to The Lads in their Hundreds.  In some ways it’s a more straightforward setting because it’s so strong and muscular, yet it has just the right sort of ambiguity.  Is Housman really saying it’s right to go to war ?  Gurney’s setting is jauntier than Butterworth’s, where the whole song hangs on irony from the start.  Yet the spirit was not lost on Gurney who sets the poem as it springs off the page as you read it, where the irony is more hidden, almost as if the poet thinks it’s better that the young men die rather than suffer the ignominy of old age.  They “carry bright back to their coiner the mintage of man, the lads who will die in their glory and never be old”.  These poems were written in the 1890’s but they speak to other times. The First World War was a 19th century war fought with 20th century weapons.  The unprecedented slaughter chimes in with the image of young men dying young for a strange sense of righteousness and it leads towards Owen’s passionate “The Old Lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”  Composers must have instinctively understood this and found in music a means of expressing despair.

Housman is set extensively, yet Owen poetry seems to elude most composers.  Yet Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth is the basis of Britten’s War Requiem, one of the greatest anti-war statements in music.  When the tenor sings “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” there’s no doubt that Britten has taken on board the long thread of protest.  “What’s more”, says Gilchrist, “it’s a brilliant stroke of genius to place Owen’s Anthem alongside the latin Mass for the dead.”  It’s a powerful combination linking wars across time and place, linking the specific to the universal.  “The imagery in Owen’s poetry is so profound that it demand study and thought that is beyond ordinary music, but then Britten’s music isn’t ordinary.  There’s that almost cinematic writing for big choir, and then all of a sudden you’re focussed on a more intimate inner world and the text switches to the vernacular, which speaks simply and directly.  “It seems that out of battle I escaped/ Down some profound dull tunnel….”  Everything just stops and you remember this moment after the cataclysmic fanfares that went before and enter the absolutre kernel of what this piece is about – the extraordinary meeting between vanquished and victor which is on such a human scale.  It demands great vocal control, spinning long breaths and phrases and a complete understanding of how the music has reached this point.  I love this work !”

The War Requiem is a work Gilchrist frequently performs, but he’s also associated with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, performing both at this year’s  Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester (see review links below.)   “Gerontius”, he says, “is a work I’ve known since I was very young and it means a lot to me.  I think it’s both the vivid living-in-the-instant portrayal of demons, angels, fear, hope and so much else, presented with such immediate clarity, combined with the sense that the soul is undertaking a timeless spiritual journey.  This two dimensional feel is what I find so powerful.  A Amongst all the fury and rage and terror, there is a very thoughtful, hopeful and tender heart. Whatever our professed faith, I think this piece moves us all. To sing it is a huge undertaking. I feel very much that I am travelling with the protagonist, and feel utterly drained at the end. It's not a work that I find possible to perform in a superficial or disinterested manner, and so I hope it moves the audience and leaves them feeling that they have taken with Gerontius a momentous journey”.

Newman’s poem is complex, so Elgar’s imaginative and sympathetic setting makes it a masterpiece.  Sometimes, great poems defy musical setting, while lesser texts are immortalised in song.  “The finest poetry”, says Gilchrist, “has its own life and melody so it can present greater challenges to a composer.  Yet Finzi took on Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality.  It’s fantastic piece, a truly huge work that tries to emcompass everything.  The poem stands so well that it’s understandable that Finzi was taken to task for attempting too much, but a truly great work of art is able to support many treatments.  It’s a testament to Wordsworth’s greatness that Finzi’s setting works well as a piece of music in itself.  One has a sense of the poem’s great range, and of Finzi having thought carefully about it”.  Gilchrist’s recording (See review) is vocally one of the brightest and most vivacious, for it captures the vivid sense of wonder that animates Finzi’s setting.

So how does Gilchrist prepare his interpretations ?  “I try to get to grips with the poems even before I really study the music, in order to find what was in the poetry that moved the composer to set it in the first place.  With Intimations of Immortality, it took some time because it’s such a vast work. It wasn’t a piece I wanted to do when I was very young not only because of the intensity of the poem, but also because it demands physical stamina. It’s one of those pieces best left after your 35th birthday.  It’s a mistake to approach works like this before you have the maturity to do them properly.  I’d known Intimations for some time but hadn’t thought of recording it until Naxos came up with an offer, quite serendipitously at a time when I had three concert performances scheduled.  So it was a good chance to really get to grips with the piece and live with it for a period of several months”.

Modern singers emphasise communication, and Gilchrist’s pure, natural-sounding tonal range is distinctive.  It’s rather like Peter Schreier singing Bach Evangelists.  The “story” mattered to him and he sang with vivid emotional involvement.  German tenors don’t sound like the archetype “English tenor”.  “You’ve hit a raw nerve there”, exclaims Gilchrist, for among singers and musicians, calling someone an “English tenor” is almost an insult.  It implies that someone has a “nice-ish” voice and a worthy manner but is somewhat detached.  It’s sometimes been called, jokingly, “singing in kid gloves”.  But composers chose texts for a purpose, in an attempt to communicate.  “It is easy to become all “singery” about singing and concentrate on beauty of tone and line.  Of course such things are critical, but the overriding importance for me is to communicate the sense of what I’m singing, the emotion and ideas.  If one doesn’t do that in some way, one has failed.  I try to approach all music in that way, be it Bach, or Handel or Guillaume Dufay. Ultimately, music is a means of communication and if you’re not communicating, you’re not really “there”.  Song recitals can be dull when the quality of voice remains unchanged from beginning to end because the singer’s discovered no colours.  The truly great singers have a huge palette of vocal colour to choose from.  It’s not good to paint from a narrow palette.  Our “art” should be subservient to our communication”.

Unlike actors, singers are guided by a text and score, so they can’t really lose themselves in a role.  Nonetheless, they do reveal themselves psychologically as their interpretations reveal their emotional responses.  Live performances are upfront and personal, unlike recordings where an audience isn’t actually present.  “It’s important not to always be yourself”, says Gilchrist, “but also not to leave yourself out.  It’s a balance.  I’ve been to Lieder recitals where I’ve felt terribly naked, exposed to the raw emotion revealed when the singer is too close.  So when I perform I try and create a physical distance and put some barriers between me and the audience in order to remove some of the discomfort of having someone emote right in front of you. It might be a jug of water, some flowers or even a lamp, just between me and the audience, but it creates a neutral space.  Thus I feel more comfortable as a performer, and more able to inhabit the music. If there’s no space between I feel slightly self conscious and shy of “breaking down” in front of people, even though it’s in the music.  That little space gives a performer a little distance in which to undergo his transformation and it’s less inhibiting both for the performer and the audience”.   Recordings are presumably even more detached.  On the other hand, though, Gilchrist says “you listen differently when you’re in a darkened room or while beetling along in a car, and get different things in different circumstances”.

Gilchrist has also been a great champion of new composers.  He often works with the harpist Alison Nicholls and they’ve been able to get several commissions for the usual combination of voice and harp, most recently a piece by Nicola LeFanu.  He’s also performed new works by Howard Skempton, Alec Roth, John Jeffreys and Jonathan Eato.  Another major project coming up is an opera by the late Kenneth Leighton.  Gilchrist loves opera and would like to do more, but his many other commitments keep him within the United Kingdom.

Anne Ozorio

Reviews from the Three Choirs Festival 2007

There are many James Gilchrist reviews in Seen & Heard dating from 2003. The two most recent are from this year's Three Choirs Festival.  The War Requiem review is  Here and a  review of The Dream of Gerontius Here.

Reviews of James Gilchrist recordings.

Finzi Songs Review on Linn : Link

Finzi : Intimations of Immortality Reviews from Rob Barnett  Jonathan Woolf and Anne Ozorio

Stainer : The Crucifixion  Reviews from Michael Cookson and John Quinn

John Jeffreys: The Far Country, 26 English Songs Review by Colin Scott-Sutherland

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