James Gilchrist Ralph Vaughan-Williams On Wenlock Edge Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

James Gilchrist and The Fitzwilliam String Quartet charm...

Andrew Mellor 2007

Following his first disc on the Linn label, James Gilchrist here stakes a claim to some milestones of the English tenor repertoire; an act not without its risks, but from a singer whose step onto the solo recording ‘main stage’ is perhaps overdue.


In the introductory cascades of Vaughan Williams’s song cycle On Wenlock Edge the Fitzwilliam Quartet is acidic and biting with Gilchrist meeting it head-on: invigorating stuff from the off, and far from the pastoral legato of some other interpretations. Further on, Gilchrist’s no-nonsense vocal style meets the folk-based contours of the music with a convincing respect – his vowels more fluid and natural than some in the English tenor tradition, and his delivery all the more vivid for it. Pianist Anna Tilbrook throws light on the underlying Ravel in Vaughan Williams’s score, particularly in “Bredon Hill” – though here and elsewhere the Fitzwilliams seem a touch disparate and ill-tuned, their vibrato-less hovering (also in “Is my team ploughing”) achieves a vernacular charm but remains uneasy nonetheless.


Given the links between On Wenlock Edge and Ivor Gurney’s set Ludlow & Teme, it’s a shame the latter tracks don’t follow straight on (as they do in the interesting sleeve note). Gurney’s songs are heard for the first time here in his revised form. They’re more inclined to sudden alterations in mood and tempi, and the sense of ensemble – in a recorded sound that doesn’t favour Gilchrist too readily over his colleagues – is more purposeful as a result.


The Curlew – for many Peter Warlock’s finest work – reveals something of the unsettled and melancholic longing of the composer’s short life. The Fitzwilliams, with spellbinding guest cor anglais and flute, are suitably emotionally charged here: singing, whispering and groaning through Warlock’s painful, lyrical instrumental weaves. Heard on a single track, the shift in mood is palpable in the silences between each section. Gilchrist might struggle technically in his concluding unaccompanied climax, but with his trademark vocal warmth and sincerity, an acute sense of poetic phrase and committed playing from his instrumentalists, he breathes life into the music here and throughout this evocative disc.

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