Shortly after a disguised Wotan stepped onto the stage in the third instalment of Barenboim’s Proms Ring, across London another of German music’s great wanderers put in an appearance. It may have been a warm July evening outside, but from the first notes of this compelling Winterreise from James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook the temperature in Wigmore Hall seemed to plummet well below zero.

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

That this pair have a long history of performing this work together was more than evident in their rapport and in their shared vision of how each song, and the cycle as a whole, should be shaped. What really caused this performance to stand out, however, was Gilchrist’s ability to inhabit his role in a completely believable manner which never verged on melodrama.

In her unusual – but thoroughly convincing – take on the introduction to “Frühlingstraum” (“Dream of Springtime”), Tilbrook utilised a daring amount of rubato in a way which made it seem like she was recalling the melody from some distant memory. This, combined with the grace and ease of Gilchrist’s delivery (particularly in the melismas), made for an extremely touching account. The rustlings which begin “Der Lindenbaum” (“The Linden Tree”), however, was less successful; audibility and clarity were sacrificed in favour of a general impression whilst a truly rapt pianissimo in the chords before the voice’s entry would have enabled an even keener feeling of expanse to be established. Only in the postlude did Tilbrook offer us a glimpse of the kind of playing – sensitive touch and a beguiling palette of tone colours – which this song requires.

Their interpretation of “Die Post” (“The Post”) underplayed the crushing shift to the minor in the second stanza. A particularly frenzied “Rückblick” (“Retrospect”) made the moment of stillness at its conclusion even more fleeting and poignant whilst in “Irrlicht” (ldquo;Will o’ the Wisp”) a high degree of rhythmic freedom allowed the duo to articulate the music’s various characters superbly.

Occasionally, playing of a more assertive nature from Tilbrook would have yielded even greater emotional rewards – the manic interjections in “Mut!” (“Courage”) could have done with more of the fire which characterised “Der stürmische Morgen” (“The Stormy Morning”). Time and again, Gilchrist’s acute understanding of the text produced moments of real insight; his impassioned, naked weeping at the end of “Letzte Hoffnung” (“Last Hope”) being a case in point.

As this winter’s journey moved further towards its endpoint, the pair’s approach became ever more effective. In “Der Wegweiser” (“The Signpost”) Gilchrist’s centred physical presence seemed to capture the sheer inexorable pull of the harmonies whilst his purity of tone and sense of line in “Die Nebensonnen” (“The Phantom Suns”) was truly extraordinary. Their rendition of “Der Leiermann” (“The Organ-Grinder”) was unsettling in its simplicity; Gilchrist’s persona seemed to become ever more absent – lost in the organ-grinder’s strange dirge.

A cold, harsh and melodramatic performance of Winterreise can be a truly chilling experience but, as Gilchrist proved so brilliantly here, it is a mixture of honesty, sensitivity and human warmth that can really unlock this work’s full emotional potential.

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