A Festival of the Voice can hardly be complete without a few Lieder, and Cambridge Early Music's festival closed accordingly with an evening devoted to exploring the works of Goethe through song. This included the chance to compare no less than four settings of Goethe's iconic poem Erlkönig, the eerie tale of a son whose soul is stolen away by the Elf King while his body is being carried on horseback, in his father's arms, through a dark forest. The last time I heard Erlkönig was in Reichardt's version, as part of the highly experimental Morgen und Abend at the Royal Opera House, and that time, its hypnotic structure and chilling conclusion gave me goosebumps all the way home. However, although the settings by Reichardt, Zelter, Klein and Loewe contrasted nicely in terms of style and approach to the text, James Gilchrist's evident enjoyment of his singing tended to erode any sense of the truly eerie.

James Gilchrist © operaomnia.co.uk
James Gilchrist
© operaomnia.co.uk

Lieder are very tricky things to sing: not only technically, but in performance terms. To give each song its own tiny, perfect world, to set its jewel-like little story or scenario in a landscape of emotional reality, without overacting and losing the audience's sympathy, is tough, particularly when the songs often consist of more atmosphere than actual plot. Unfortunately, for much of the evening, James Gilchrist's passionate and committed performance felt more theatrical than emotional: his clear enthusiasm for the genre tended to bubble over into a sparklingly camp delivery which ultimately detracted from the seriousness of each song, leaving many of them sounding a bit too playful, and seldom achieving the underlying sourness or sadness which is characteristic of Romantic poetry, and ultimately gives Lieder their emotional grit.

So, Zelter's Ruhe and Loewe's Uber Allen gibfeln ist Ruh were nicely sung, and should have been moving, but simply weren't. Zelter's plangent Um Mitternacht came off better, with Gilchrist's phrasing sounding cleaner and better sustained.

Several other Lieder, however, didn't fare quite so well. Meanwhile, some initial tightness at the top of Gilchrist's range in the early part of the evening often left his highest notes sounding thin or reedy, and timing could be scrappy, though Gilchrist has warm on-stage camaraderie with his accompanist Anna Tilbrook, who was playing a contemporary copy of Mozart's piano from 1805 with skill.

A certain breathiness to some of Gilchrist's lower notes didn't always sound intentional either. However, things were generally better after the interval, when Gilchrist turned to Haydn's English Canzonettas and Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Of the Haydn, She never told her love came across superbly, Gilchrist singing with real feeling and no schmaltz at all, while Content also worked well, Gilchrist celebrating the sensuality of the song with taste. However, Sympathy and Piercing Eyes felt straight out of a Jane Austen drawing room scene: bland, clichéd and ultimately dull.

The magisterial Beethoven song cycle An die ferne Geliebte got off to a wonderful start, its opening piece delivered with sincerity and poise, with Gilchrist's tenor finally fully warmed up and sounding smooth and strong. The temptation to overact rose and conquered Gilchrist's style in the second and fourth Beethoven songs, but the fifth and sixth were perfectly delivered: thoughtfully expressed, and wildly romantic in tone, content and execution. Overall, a concert certainly worth sitting through for its highlights; but in order to truly understand the Northern Berlin School of Lieder, I think I might need another chance.

**111