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James Gilchrist - Leighton & Britten - MusicWeb International


03 November 2010
MusicWeb International
John Francis

It is one of the ironies of classical music that some works appear to succeed and others do not: often this has little to do with merit. Consider the two major song-cycles presented on this CD. One is well-known to most British music enthusiasts: the other is virtually unknown. There are currently some eight - surprisingly few in my opinion - recordings of Benjamin Britten's great Winter Words in the catalogue. At present there is only this recording of Earth, Sweet Earth by Kenneth Leighton. There is virtually no reason that this should be the case - save that one was written nearly sixty years ago and the other was composed in 1985: it could be argued that Winter Words has had more time to sink into the musical public's collective consciousness. Yet, if any judgement were to be made based on the relative worth of each work, there would be little to choose between them. Both works are major contributions to English music and both are masterpieces in their respective composer's catalogue.

Little need be said about the genesis and reception of Winter Words. It is a song-cycle that has become justifiably famous since the original Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten recording made in the year of the work's publication. However, three things are worth bearing in mind when approaching this work. Firstly, Graham Johnston has rightly pointed out that these songs have ‘about them a sanity and stability which is one of the hallmarks of English song, a certain equanimity which is lacking in the ardent wooing of [Britten's settings of] Michelangelo and the fevered visions of Donne.' There is an atmosphere about this work that sets it apart from much that Britten wrote.

Secondly, many composers have set the words of Thomas Hardy - with greater or lesser success. Gerald Finzi stands out as the poet's greatest ‘musical interpreter.' However, apart from Winter Words, I believe that Britten set only ‘The Oxen' from Hardy's corpus. Peter Porter has suggested that Britten's approach to the poems set in Winter Words has ‘avoided all touch of the dreaded English pastoral, and [has] reproduced Hardy's urban lyricism and particularly his Victorian or Darwinian doubt'. Most of these songs reflect the poet's concern with the transitory nature of life and the opposition of youth and age.

And thirdly, the texture of the songs is generally seen to be sparer and more economical with material than the earlier song-cycles. This quality must be recognised by the performers. Additionally, the music contains a number of ‘extra-musical' effects - for example, the ‘creaking' of the table, the dipping of the wagtail and the choirmaster's favourite hymn all find themselves portrayed in the vocal line and the accompaniment. However, it is essential that these are not over played.

For me, the touchstone of any recording of Winter Words is the performance of the last song - ‘Before Life and After'. This is one of the finest songs in the whole repertoire of English vocal music. James Gilchrist passes the test - the clarity and purity of his voice are never in doubt. Both pianist and singer approach this masterpiece with confidence and understanding that makes this an ideal recording. In the rest of the cycle, the imagery of the songs is never overstated, but is subtly and satisfyingly presented. I am of an age that tends to look back to the Britten/Pears recordings of this work with a dewy eye. However, times move on, and I believe that this CD captures the spirit and the mood of the poet's fears and reflections on the transience of life.

Winter Words, Op.52 was composed in 1953 between work on the operas Gloriana, Op.52 and The Turn of the Screw, Op.54. It was first performed on 8 October 1953 by Peter Pears and the composer at Harewood House in the West Riding, as a part of the Leeds Festival.

Kenneth Leighton's Earth, Sweet Earth, Op.94 is a work new to me, so I depend rather heavily on the CD liner-notes. There appears to be little else in the literature about this work.

James Gilchrist writes that this is a ‘monumental work, huge in concept and execution,' it is a great sweep of emotion that uses the prose and poetry of John Ruskin and Gerard Manley Hopkins to ‘explore, with great tenderness, the writers' helpless sense of loss when confronted by humanity's inevitable, progressive march towards the industrialised modern world.' This is presented not so much as a political problem, but more in the sense of a ‘loss of innocence'.

Adam Binks writes that Leighton preferred to label song-cycles as ‘solo cantatas'. This is a fair description of what turns out to be a long, dramatic and complex work. However, it is clear from hearing this ‘cantata' that the work was conceived as a unity, as a complete work of art. It is not a selection of songs strung together that allows the soloists to pick and chose numbers and their order. Leighton stated a preference that the texts be sung in the order given, although he did make a suggestions for a less than complete performance.

The first ‘song' is by far the longest, lasting over eleven minutes. It opens with a piano solo that reminded me in scope, if not style, of the opening movement of Finzi's Dies Natalis. In the text, Ruskin looks back at his youth with a nostalgia echoing Thomas Traherne - ‘there was no thought in any of us for a moment of there being clouds...'

The second song explores the Highland landscape at ‘Inversnaid' and the dreadful thought of a world ‘bereft of wet and of wildness.' This is followed by a beautifully contrived musical description of a winter landscape. The imagery is near perfect and reflects the poet's thought that ‘the sun was bright, the broken brambles and all boughs and banks limed and cloyed with white'. Both music and words make the listener feel a distinct chill.

The fourth section is a passage from Hopkins' Journals and considers the destruction of an ash-tree in the corner of his garden. This affects the poet intensely and for a moment he wishes to die rather than see the world destroyed any more.

‘Binsey Poplars' is another poem of ‘mourning' for trees. The poet's beloved aspen trees have been felled. He believes that ‘after-comers cannot guess the beauty been' of these trees: we are in danger of destroying the rural scene. Yet the final two poems are much more optimistic in tone. ‘Hurrahing the Harvest' is a celebration of the landscape as late-summer turns into autumn. The final text is ‘Ribblesdale': this makes clear that the poet understands the relationship between humankind and the natural environment - with all the tensions, problems and possibilities. Musically, this relationship is well stated and adds considerable value to the text.

Earth, Sweet Earth was commissioned by Neil Mackie in memory of Peter Pears, and was begun 1985 and was completed the following year. It received its premiere at Cheltenham on 6 July 1987.

I understand that a recording of this work was made around 1988 with Neil Mackie, tenor and John Blakely, piano on the Harmonia Mundi. It is not a CD that I have seen or heard. However, it was reasonably well-received in the Gramophone magazine with the reviewer suggesting that ‘strong curves of vocal melody, striking piano images (the cries of pain in Song Four at the felling of a beloved ash-tree) but the direct intensity at the heart of these outwardly difficult poems is only intermittently caught...' The reviewer acknowledges that the ‘complexity of Hopkins's imagery and prosody is reflected in the keyboard parts, which are dense, sometimes onomatopoeic and rather knotted in their frowning concentration, while the high, free vocal lines are more lyrical, more directly expressive...'

I enjoyed both works presented on this CD. James Gilchrist's singing and Anna Tilbrook's piano accompaniments are all that can be wished for. The articulation of the words and phrases are ideal and the sometimes onomatopoeic elements of both the vocal and piano parts are well-stated. The two song-cycles are very different in scale, musical language and performance, however the subject matter of both works is closer than a first glance would suggest. They make an ideal and imaginative pairing. It is to the credit of both performers that they interpret each work in a manner that is ultimately satisfying to the musical styles of each composer, yet manage to preserve the theme of loss of innocence from a spiritual and a practical point of view.


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Anna TilbrookAnna Tilbrook
James GilchristJames Gilchrist
Leighton Earth, Sweet Earth…(laudes terrae) and Britten Winter WordsLeighton Earth, Sweet Earth…(laudes terrae) and Britten Winter Words