Humour and Pathos in James Bowman Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dowland, Farrant, Gibbons, Purcell, Handel, Britten, Howells, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Praetorius, Maxwell Davis: English Song from Dowland to Britten: James Bowman (counter-tenor), Andrew Plant (piano), Christ Church, Cheltenham, 15.3.2014.

 “Counter tenors are an invention of the twentieth century,” James Bowman informed his audience at this recital presented by the Holst Birthplace Museum. He also revealed that none of the songs featured in the programme had actually been composed for the counter-tenor voice, most notably the Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex from Gloriana which Britten had composed for tenor Peter Pears.

 However, none of them sounded out of place, and in Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move and Gibbons’ Drop, drop slow tears the sense of melancholy was heightened in these arrangements for counter-tenor.  Farrant’s Hide not thy face from us, O Lord combined reverence with expression, while there was a frisson of delight in Purcell’s Sweeter than Roses.

 Bowman’s admiration for Handel was made manifest by the inclusion of three widely differing arias.  The prayer Father in Heaven from Judas Maccabaeus sounded both impressive and sincere, while Io le diro che l’amo from Xerxes was a much more skittish and light-hearted affair. The gentle Where e’er you walk from Semele conjured up a delightful vision of Arcadia and deserves its enduring popularity.

 Bowman moved on a century and a half in the second half of the concert to sing Vaughan Williams and Britten, both of whom he had known and worked with during his a long and successful career. He remembered with especial affection the “idiosyncratic” Imogen Holst who would engage him to perform late night concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival in remote churches,  and was a great early music fan.

 Although he only included one work, The heart worships, by her father Gustav, Holst’s friend, Vaughan Williams was represented by two songs: the mystical son The Call and his setting of Housman’s From far, from eve and morning which was performed with a touching wistfulness. A highlight of the second half was Herbert Howells’ wonderful miniature King David, given a profound and spiritual performance by Bowman and Plant; and there was much consolation in Gerald Finzi’s Fear no more the heat of the sun.  I considered it an inspired idea to offer two version of Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens – one by Britten, the other by Ivor Gurney, a native of Gloucestershire, as both Howells and Holst were.

 Andrew Plant, an expert on Britten’s music, proved a sympathetic accompanist and also contributed two piano solos. The first was Ballet by Praetorius, whose treatise on musical instruments Syntagma Musicum proved an inspiration to David Monrow (one of the pioneers of the early music revival) who was remembered with affection by Bowman. The other was Farewell to Stromness, one of Maxwell Davies’ most popular works.

 This turned out to be a very entertaining which melancholy was tempered with wit.  James Bowman’s singing voice continues to hold up well, and in addition he is an accomplished witty raconteur.

 The Holst Museum website is

 Roger Jones