James Gilchrist - Leighton & Britten - Audiophile Audition
Winter Words is to my mind one of a trilogy of great English song cycles set in the 20th century, the other two being Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson and Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs. Each of these sets is vitally descriptive, phenomenally crafted, and gloriously persuasive in both texts and music. With Britten's setting of these Thomas Hardy "lyrics and ballads" he actually finds the discipline to subordinate the music to such a degree to the text that the former often seems a simple commentary on the Hardy words. This sparseness of musical reckoning is an economy of means that launches the cycle into the orbit of the greats-the texts themselves dictate to the music the emotional tenor of the ideas present. This doesn't always work when setting poetry to music, and many times we hear poems that seem ridiculously distorted when music joins in. Not here, as Britten realizes the importance of the naked texts in and of themselves to describe the desolate nature of Hardy's industrial fears felt through human disconnectedness.
But Gilchrist, aside from wonderfully spacious SACD sound-and yes, it does work well for piano and voice recitals-gives us the "solo cantata" (as the composer called it) earth, sweet earth... [laudes terrae], a massive cycle of 40 minutes length that is truly a wonder in itself. It is not Britten-no one in England was or is-but its mixtures of texts by John Rushkin and Gerard Manly Hopkins that also deal with the coming of the industrial age and its influence on man and nature are vividly captured in Leighton's more virtuosic and forceful musical conception-the first movement alone is over ten minutes, and there is some period of time before the voice even enters. Pianist Tilbrook has a huge challenge in conveying this almost cadenza-like music-and does so admirably-while Gilchrist is more in his element here-rhapsodic and soaring vocal lines that display an ecstasy nonexistent in Winter Words. This is definitely a cycle worth hearing, and this SACD is glowingly recommended.