James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook make a duo of opposites, the one naturally declamatory in his singing, the other an instinctive lyricist. The programme opened with Purcell’s songs Evening Hymn and Lord, What is man, both presented with grand rhetorical gestures from Gilchrist, complemented by the gorgeous, flowing lines of Britten’s free-flowing realisations of Purcell’s accompaniments. There followed three short pieces by Rebecca Clarke, two quiet songs and a short Romance for Viola and Piano, which introduced Philip Dukes. This player conjures miracles with the nasal tones of his viola, and now presented Britten’s Lachrimae for solo viola in a performance that was simply stunning. Britten cuts to the quick with this piece, stripping away all that is inessential, whilst Dukes wondrously sustained its chains of musical thought and the weight of its expressive import, albeit mostly in pianissimo.
The Britten was followed by David Bednall’s extended song The Mower, setting texts by Andrew Marvell. The writing for viola and piano is effective, but the unashamed plundering of the English pastoral style of a century ago eventually proved restrictive (especially after the Britten), whilst the word-setting too often follows the speech-rhythms of the text, leading to repetitive musical rhythms. Gurney and Ireland (whom we were to hear in the second half) show just what can be achieved by imaginative variations of rhythm in the vocal line.
The second half began with a lovely performance of the second movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, arranged for viola, followed by four wartime songs by Ivor Gurney, and John Ireland’s edgier settings of Rupert Brooke poems. Finally we heard two rarely heard pieces by Vaughan Williams, the Romance for viola and piano and the Four Hymns with viola and piano, of 1914. Although the VW pieces struggled to match the levels of invention of Gurney and Ireland songs, the programme overall was imaginatively conceived and beautifully presented.
Professor Peter Johnson
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire