It’s easy to understand why poets might be prickly about having their work set to music, for the act of composing indelibly fixes another person’s interpretation onto what might be a very particular and even private vision. Yeats spent many years in legal battles over Peter Warlock’s settings that make up The Curlew, although the composer’s tragically early death made him relent, and although A.E. Housman didn’t go to such lengths against Vaughan Williams’ cycle On Wenlock Edge, he made his disapproval clear, refusing to attend any performances or accept royalties.

James Gilchrist © Operaomnia
James Gilchrist
© Operaomnia

The objections of the poets seem particularly unfair in the cases of Warlock and Vaughan Williams, for both composers treat their texts with great sensitivity, letting the words stand clear and unadorned, and using their light instrumental accompaniment to transport the listener to the poems’ physical settings, to the wild hills of Ireland for Yeats and to the gentler pastoral hills of Housman’s Shropshire.

Tenor James Gilchrist was a quiet presence at the centre of the music; seeming so comfortable and familiar with the words, it was as if he’d written them himself. His songs poured out in long, carefully crafted lines; his gorgeous voice sounding natural and unfussy, enriched with just a little touch of vibrato. Both sets are accompanied by string quartet, with the addition of two woodwinds for Warlock, and a piano for Vaughan Williams, and there was an extraordinary rapport between Gilchrist and the instrumentalists around him, as if the songs were a spontaneous conversation between the two.

Peter Warlock’s setting of several Yeats poems begins with the lonely sound of a solo cor anglais, evoking the curlew of the cycle’s title and a subtle hint of a Celtic folk tonality serve to whisk us away to the Irish mountains. The first two songs were all desolate beauty, and the instruments vividly evoked vast, lonely spaces, settling now and then on the sad, bright harmonies that come with the repeated phrase about withered boughs that links the poems together. There’s a dramatic change of mood for third poem, as Warlock summons up witches with an unhinged, furtive whirl of energy petering out into a desperately sad whisper, and which seemed an all too accurate vignette of the composer’s own troubled life. 

John Ireland’s Fantasy Sonata for solo clarinet and piano was a sparkling refreshment between the two very different sets of songs. There was still a strong sense of place from another corner of the British Isles, as the piece was inspired by Jersey where the composer had spent some time before being evacuated during the war. There was a real historical continuity in this performance: the sonata was dedicated to clarinettist Frederick Thurston, and soloist Timothy Orpen explained that he had been able to study it with Thurston’s widow, Thea King. Consisting of one single movement, it’s definitely more fantasia than sonata, ranging freely between lyricism and virtuosity. This was a warm, sunny performance, with both Orpen and pianist Anna Tilbrook clearly enjoying themselves immensely.

Housman’s poems, with their strong narratives seem naturally suited to being set to music, particularly in the hands of a composer such as Vaughan Williams who was so deeply rooted in traditional English song. The second, From far, from eve and morning could almost have been one of Vaughan Williams’s hymn tunes, and Gilchrist sang it with a clear, open honesty, set against radiant strings and a breezily fresh piano, a return to sunshine after the violent storms of the first song.

The sense of place is strongest in the longest movement of the set, Bredon Hill, in which a man’s memory of his dead love are recalled through the village bells. Royal Northern Sinfonia’s four string players created a shimmering summer heat, with the distant chiming bells gently added by pianist Anna Tilbrook, and the whole thing was as light and elusive as the narrator’s own memories. As the poem turns to tragedy, the strings shifted seamlessly to brittle iciness, and the happy bell chimes changed to the funeral tolling in a deep, resonant violin pizzicato.

The instruments do so much in this song that Gilchrist needed to do nothing more than float the words over them, but the partnership had been reversed earlier in, Is my team ploughing? Behind the pastoral title is a spine-tingling conversation between a dead man and his friend: Gilchrist stripped his singing down to the barest bones to create the ghostly voice of the dead man then burst into vigorous life to give the tactlessly cheerful responses of the man who is still enjoying the pleasure of being alive.

After the passions of Warlock and Yeats, and the ghosts and tragedies of Wenlock Edge, the final song, Clun, brought the entire recital to a gently autumnal closure, Gilchrist kindly inviting us to set aside all troubles for the quiet wisdom of maturity, and the beautiful dying away of the strings into a long, contented stillness felt as though many burdens had been lifted.