Four kinds of solitude are here explored by the tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook – and it’s safe to say it carries far greater resonance for listeners now than they can have imagined in the studio last summer.
The music spans more than 300 years. For Purcell, being alone is the spark for the kind of melancholy, painful and yet delicious, that renaissance poets found irresistible. His 1685 song O Solitude, My Sweetest Choice is sung, with finely calibrated intensity, in the 1955 arrangement by Britten, in which a solemn piano accompaniment opens up the space around the melody and turns the focus outwards, making the introspection into something that feels universal.
For Schubert, solitude is a kind of nirvana, attained and appreciated at the end of a long life – or at least that is how he portrayed it in 1818 in his relatively little-heard first song cycle, Einsamkeit. Jonathan Dove’s 2017 cycle Under Alter’d Skies, setting words by Tennyson to somewhat static melodies winding over mesmerically repeating piano lines, examines grief at the loss of a soulmate; Barber’s 1953 Hermit Songs, setting the margin-jottings of medieval Irish monks, explore the feeling of being at peace with one’s ranging thoughts.
Together these make for a rewarding programme that repays concentration. Gilchrist is, as ever, a hugely clear and communicative singer, in perfect balance with Tilbrook’s sense of focus and poise, even if at some moments in the Barber the piano seems a bit tasteful when something gaudier is called for. As a team, they are highly effective at building slow-burning tension, shaping long crescendos while holding just a little bit back. In that way, it’s the Purcell that’s arguably the highlight; its ending, with Gilchrist holding the final note as if he’ll never let go, is quietly devastating, a sting in the tail that might be felt especially by those who have recently experienced solitude not by choice.
This week’s other pick
Is a previously missing piece in the quirky puzzle that is Carl Nielsen. A century ago, with Denmark celebrating the redrawing of its borders following the first world war, Nielsen wrote incidental music for a triumphant allegorical play by Helge Rode, The Mother. Recorded in its entirety for the first time, played and sung with panache by all-Danish forces conducted by Andreas Delfs, it’s a score of almost operatic scope, going way beyond mere nationalism in its storytelling flair.