Clarity and Charm from James Bowman

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 6 – Britten, Purcell, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Warlock: Nick Pritchard (tenor), Ian Tindale (piano);  James Bowman (counter-tenor), Andrew Plant (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford,  20.10.2013

Britten: Three Soutar Songs
Zelter: Um Mitternacht
Folksongs (realised by Britten): I wonder as I wander
Sally in our alley
Purcell (arranged by Britten): Sweeter than roses
Britten: Two songs from A Charm of Lullabies, Op 41:
A Cradle Song
The Nurse’s Song
The Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex (from Gloriana, Op 53)
Warlock: Two songs from Three Belloc Songs:
My own country
The Night
Britten: Night (from This way to the Tomb)
Howells: Full Moon (from Peacock Pie)
Vaughan Williams: The Call (from Five Mystical Songs)
From far, from eve and morning (from Wenlock Edge)
Britten: If thou wilt ease thine heart
I know a bank (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op 64)
Folksong (realised by Britten): The trees they grow so high


James Bowman may have officially retired from the concert and opera stage – at least in London – but, now in his 72nd year, he is still pleased to give occasional, intimate recitals elsewhere. Furthermore, having worked with Britten in the later years of his life, few people apart from Bowman are as ideally placed to have lead this programme, ‘Britten remembered’. It intelligently highlighted the various aspects of the composer’s wide-ranging vocal art by juxtaposing a selection of extracts from his work alongside those by other English contemporaries for whom he entertained varying degrees of respect.

The programme began with one of Britten’s arrangements of Purcell, the composer who perhaps represents the gold-standard in setting English words, to which every composer since has aspired. In Sweeter than roses Bowman demonstrated an exemplary clarity of tone, with a hushed description of the “cool evening breeze”, and broke out into vocal fireworks at “then shot like fire all o’er”. The performance may have verged on the mannered, even camp, but as a Romanticised arrangement of Purcell, rather than the real thing, this was passable.

As to be expected, Bowman cultivated a much calmer, soothing manner for the two Lullabies, assisted in The Nurse’s Song by Andrew Plant’s caressing way with rocking chords in the accompaniment. Bowman carried over something of a dreamy, rhapsodic mood into the Second Lute Song from Gloriana, in which the Earl of Essex muses upon the felicity of a life lived away from worldly travail, uninterrupted by the execution he is about to undergo. The melismas on the repeated word “happy” at the end were enunciated by Bowman as a sad echo of its declamation at the beginning of the song.

In the rest of programme, Bowman showed studied but not forced charm, particularly in Warlock’s and Britten’s two poems on the theme of night, and Warlock’s pastoral My own country. Certainly there was a delicacy and tenderness in I know a bank from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Vaughan Williams’s The Call, the latter studded with just a little more religious intensity, appropriate to this setting of George Herbert’s spirited vision of the soul’s prayer for union with the source of its life. From far, from eve and morning and If thou wilt ease thine heart both (a setting of words by Thomas Beddoes) called forth from Bowman at one point or other greater musical drama and urgency.

The final word was left with two of Britten’s English folksong realisations, in which he sought to recapture the haunting timelessness of these ancient melodies, stripped of the sentimental accretions, as he saw them, with which they had been overlaid since their rediscovery at the end of the Victorian period. In The trees they grow so high, Bowman’s voice seemed a little unsettled with insecure notes and muffled words, but otherwise he caught the gently melancholic mood of this narrative about untimely death. As an encore, Bowman sang the ever-popular The Salley Gardens with a hypnotically pulsing accompaniment from Plant. Their musical partnership was assured and rewarding, further enlivened with anecdotes and information from both about Britten and his work. The lapses of The trees they grow so high were more evident than at any other point in the recital, where there had only occasionally been a slight huskiness of voice or missed word. But at 71, surely this can hardly be avoided and nobody will have minded, given the infinitely greater pleasure of having the chance to hear a still distinctive musical voice whose freshness and technical precision were virtually as great as ever.

As a prelude to the main recital, a little ’15 minutes of fame’ slot was included to profile the talents of music students on the cusp of professional performing careers, in this case Nick Pritchard (presently at the Royal College of Music) and Ian Tindale (a recent graduate, also of the RCM). Pritchard’s mellifluous voice suited the innocence and humour of the Soutar settings (otherwise known as Three Soutar Rhymes) and Salley in our alley – though still capturing the ardour of youthful love in the latter – and he made apposite gestures to emphasise the dramatic aspects of the poems. A musical naïveté befitted the awed sentiment of I wonder as I wander, but Um Mitternacht sounded a little dry, though certainly differentiated in tone from the other pieces. Together the two performers displayed keen insight and sensitivity which bodes well for successful musical careers.

Curtis Rogers