My Beloved is Mine: Song Cycles by Benjamin Britten
Starting with a clarion call that suits a tenor perhaps even better than the soprano voice which first launched On This Island (Sophie Wyss in 1937), this all-Britten programme offers some tough challenges to James Gilchrist and regular recital partner Anna Tilbrook. The depths are certainly plumbed in The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945).
Gilchrist is as agile as his pianist and evidently attuned to the importance of her role. The keening minor seconds of ‘O might those sighs and teares’; the beautifully judged and far from cathedral-tenory ‘white notes’ – so haunting in the melisma on ‘crucified’ in ‘What if this present’; and the mystic union of ground-bass piano with confident vocal line in the concluding ‘Death, be not proud’ set this interpretation of The Holy Sonnets on a footing with that of tenor Peter Pears and Britten.
Not all the upper-register radiance required in the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), on the other hand, comes easily to Gilchrist; the killer opening-up to a top B in the ineffable ‘Sonnet XXX’ is just about permissibly side-stepped. Tilbrook, too, could be bolder with some of the brightest Italianate gilding. Yet there’s all the conviction a relatively light tenor voice can muster in the concluding ‘Sonnet XXIV’.
It’s in the most introspective moments elsewhere – the simple-seeming ‘Nocturne’ in On This Island, for instance, and the calm resolution to the heady lovesong of Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine – that Gilchrist’s unique artistry is heard to best advantage; here, an honesty put to the test by the exposed acoustic and a fine artistic imagination are held in a near-perfect equilibrium.