James Gilchrist Directs: Bach and Purcell

James Gilchrist Directs: Bach and Purcell
Academy of Ancient Music
James Gilchrist, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Rachel Brown
Milton Court, 19 October 2016

The Academy of Ancient Music’s 2016-17 London and Cambridge concert series features two occasions when guest directors are being invited to plan programmes and direct the orchestra. The first of these was with the tenor, James Gilchrist. Renowned as a Bach performer (most notably in the role of Evangelist in the Passions) Gilchrist has been a regular soloist with the AAM. After a musical grounding as a boy chorister at New College, Oxford and a choral scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, Gilchrist helped to pay his way through the rest of his medical training by singing in professional choirs such as The Sixteen, Tallis scholars and Cardinall’s Musick. He moved from his earlier career as a doctor to become a full-time musician twenty years ago.

On this occasion, the word ‘curator’ rather than ‘director’ is more appropriate. Gilchrist selected the vocal works from Purcell and the two Bach cantatas, handing over to the AAM’s leader, violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, to select instrumental pieces that would work with the chosen vocal pieces. And, in the performance, it was Beznosiuk who actually directed the orchestra, leaving Gilchrist to do what he does best – singing.

A pre-concert discussion between Gilchrist and Beznosiuk outlined the themes behind the evening’s music, noting a rather ‘autumnal’ mood as the music moved from secular to sacred, and from themes of love and marriage to thoughts on approaching death. The opening Purcell sequence was beautiful planned, with the song So when the glitt’ring Queen of Night (from ‘The Yorkshire Feast Song, 1690), The Sparrow and the gentle Dove (from the little known 1683 From hardy climes and dangerous toils of war, written for the wedding of Charles II’s niece to a Danish Prince), Charon the peaceful shade invites (from Orpheus Brittanicus, 1690), Seek not to know what must not be revealed (from The Indian Queen, 1695) and Lord, what is man (from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1693). Instrumental music included the Overture and a Sinfonia in From hardy climes, the Overture to The History of Dioclesian, and the Chacony in G minor.

In each of the Purcell pieces, James Gilchrist caught the varying moods perfectly, his lightly-toned, high tenor voice drawing the audience into the meaning of the words. The first of the two Bach cantatas picked up on the mood of Lord, what is man, its phrase ‘That for a worm a God should die?’ reflected by the words of the opening aria of Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht, (‘I pitiful man, I slave of sin’). After the second Orchestral Suite, the evening finished with the better known, and rather more cheerful cantata Ich habe genug, the singer reflecting the Song of Simeon’s rather more self-assured yearning for the comfort of death. As with the Purcell songs, James Gilchrist’s interpretations of these two contrasting reflections of approaching death were spot on, particular in catching the mood of comfortable resignation in Ich habe genug. Even the most confident atheist would be moved by these two contrasting believer’s reflections on death.

As in his many appearances as the Evangelist, Gilchrist has the ability to convince an audience that he is telling a personal story. Indeed, having heard him speak for the first time (rather than sing) during the pre-concert talk, I think he would make an excellent story teller – his bedside manner as a doctor must have been particularly reassuring to his patients. The way that he merged his voice into the texture of the strings and solo flute in the aria Schlummert ein was exemplary, as was his expressing of the sense of impatience in the following recitative on the words ‘My farewells are made, world, good night!’ and in the curiously jovial dance of the final aria Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod (‘I delight in my death’). His skilful and gentle negotiating of the flurry of little ornamental flourishes in the aria Erbamrme dich! in Ich armer Mensch was an essay in period performance practice.

Both cantatas and the Orchestral Suite featured solo flute, eloquently (and undemonstratively) played by Rachel Brown. Like Gilchrist, she delicately moulding the sound of her flute into the sonic texture of the orchestra. The instrumentalists of the Academy of Ancient Music were on particularly good form, with excellent keyboard continuo realisations from Alistair Ross, supported by continuo cellist, Joseph Crouch and (in the Purcell) Paula Chateauneuf on theorbo. Pavlo Beznosiuk directed the AAM with an impressive sense of the two contrasting musical styles of Purcell and Bach. Purcell generally suffers from having written so many very short, albeit outstanding, pieces, with none of the extended vocal and instrumental works that Bach and his ilk produced. But this excellently planned and performed programme shows that his music can stand proudly alongside Bach as examples of musical genius.

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