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James Gilchrist - Leighton & Britten - Gramophone


01 January 2011
Gramophone
John Steane

Though Leighton was Britten's junior by 16 years, they were still essentially contemporaries and, through their paths rarely if ever crossed, they were closer still in certain casts of mind and ways of musical thought.  In particular, they shared in expression something bleak and comfortless, the sense of chill somewhere at the heart of things.  The poets of these songs, Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins, in this respect were kindred spirits, Hopkins dismayed by man's careless exploitation of his habitat, Hardy profounfly disquieted by the manifold ironies of existnce.  Yet both poets are warm in feeling, whether for hurt lives or despoiled nature, and the recital which ends with Hardy's cry for "nescience" ("How long, oh Lord, how long?") begins with the idyllic depiction of a time "when all went well".

This is in the Prelude to Leighton's cantata Earth, Sweet Earth.  The words are Ruskin's, from his Praeterita, strikingly akin to Thomas Traherne's vision of boyhood which opens Finzi's Dies Natalis.  The rest is Hopkins, and always Leighton's settings strive deeply to get to the heart of his texts.  Perhaps this is the difference between him and Britten, who seems not to have to strive at all.  With him all things fit, with seemingly inevitable rightness; and they certainly go no less deep.

Perhaps something similar suggests itself in the inevitable comparison of performances of Winter Words.  Gilchrist and Tilbrook are an outstandingly accomplished and sensitive modern combination but one is bound to start "hearing" Peters and Britten before long.  On this occasion I did not miss the originals till the third song, "Wagtail and Baby" (Britten's marvellously deft right hand, Pear's evocation of the "perfect gentleman"); but going back afterwards I was newly aware of the easy cohesion of their performance, the sense that nothing could possibly be otherwise.  But the Leighton is a great gift.  And, to a listener who reads every day in his local newspaper of the brutally named "bullet train" planned to cut through our countryside, what resonance Hopkin's words have when he speaks of these "strokes of havoc" which "unselve" the "sweet especial rural scene"!


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Leighton Earth, Sweet Earth…(laudes terrae) and Britten Winter WordsLeighton Earth, Sweet Earth…(laudes terrae) and Britten Winter Words