09 Nov 2009

Philip Langridge at Wigmore Hall

As an interpreter of Benjamin Britten, Philip Langridge has long been esteemed as the natural successor to Peter Pears;

his long-standing commitment to the work of Harrison Birtwistle has served the composer admirably; and as a sensitive, skilful communicator of the nuances of narrative through music and words, Langridge’s performances of Vaughan Williams and Schubert are justly revered. This carefully chosen programme clearly had great personal meaning to Langridge; and the Wigmore Hall was a fitting venue to celebrate both his 70th birthday and the achievements and joy of a life in music.

Framing the recital with Schubert — excerpts from Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise — was a brave decision; as ever, Langridge’s diction was superb, but while he embraced the German language with ease and assurance, his voice no longer has the depth of tone and secure focus of old. Lyricism was exchanged for emotional intensity: the dynamics fluctuated rather wildly, as the tenor frequently resorted to a wispy head voice in the upper registers, an overly dramatic effect perhaps for these intimate songs. A few cracked high notes revealed the strain but, although the voice perhaps now lacks the bright flexibility of youth, there was no doubting Langridge’s emotional and dramatic engagement with the songs’ mournful narrative. Most successful were the sentimental, more restrained songs: in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the Brook’) pianist David Owen Norris’s delicate but assertive rippling motif literally conjured the natural world and metaphorically tormented the young miller with its ambiguous murmurings. Owen Norris was a thoughtful, responsive partner throughout this recital, ever alert to subtle nuances, enhancing — through dynamic gradations, rubati and ever-changing textures and articulation — the melodic narrative. Occasionally the dynamic contrasts may have been a little too sudden or exaggerated, the sforzandi a touch strident, but the accompaniment matched the drama of Langridge’s delivery. Fittingly, a haunting delivery of ‘Der Leiermann’ brought the recital to a close; here, the subtle variations of tempi produced a tension between the rigidity of the piano’s droning, bare fifths, the coiling right-hand and the plaintive melancholy of the voice.

Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge found Langridge in more comfortable and relaxed mode. This was a bracing interpretation perfectly suited to the folksong derivation and ambience of Vaughan Williams’ striking Housman settings. Tempi were perfectly judged. The brisk eponymous opening song was propelled by the string tremolos and dynamic, rocking piano motif which launches the cycle, and this momentum was sustained in ‘From far, from eve and morning’. Alternations of instrumentation — first voice and piano, now strings, then full ensemble — introduced a note of poignancy into the third song, ‘Is my team ploughing?’, most apt for a song that reflects with gentle nostalgia on loss and love. The members of the Doric Quartet enjoyed the narrative role played by the instrumental lines, the elongated triplets of the inner strings enhancing the mood of yearning tinged with resignation. ‘Bredon Hill’ is the emotional centre of the work: with crystal clear intonation, the strings’ slowly rocking, divisi chords created a remarkable, icy serenity, capturing the stillness and transparency of the bleached landscape as piano bells echoed through the emptiness. The ensemble gradually built up to a frightening intensity and Langridge, bitterly defying the tolling bells, spat out the final words of the closing verse, ‘I hear you, I will come’. This was superb ensemble playing, as Owen Norris and the Doric Quartet magnificently supported and complemented Langridge’s varied palette of colours.

Langridge has a long association with Birtwistle’s music: in 1986 he created the title role the opera The Mask of Orpheus and also starred in the 2008 premiere of Minotaur. ‘From Vanitas’ was specially commissioned by the Wigmore Hall; a miniature for voice and piano, Birtwistle’s sparse, delicately crafted score follows the long, drawn-out lines and accumulating images of the text by David Harsent, his long-term librettist. Langridge’s sensitivity to the sinuous, unfolding poetic lines was superlative; voice and piano intricately interweave, as a rocking figure played by the piano grows ever more urgent, reaching a tempestuous climax before sinking to a deathly silence: ‘the window a mirror perhaps, the room a wilderness.’

Britten’s Who are these children? demonstrated why Langridge is considered a master of English song. The riddling rhymes of William Soutar’s poems, with their Scots dialect and angular rhythms, are not inherently ‘musical’ but Langridge brought melody and coherence to these lines. He doesn’t project the text at the expense of the musical line — there are no ugly exaggerations or distracting mannerisms; rather, a relaxed unfolding in which musical and dramatic narratives are truly one.

The deeply appreciative audience at the Wigmore Hall were not likely to let Langridge go without some ‘extras’. The first encore was a brief mock-tragedy, delivered with mischievous insouciance; this was followed by a boisterous rendering of a ditty from G&S’s ‘Utopia Limited’, oozing ease and charm and demonstrating why Langridge is such a natural on the operatic stage. Both performers clearly enjoyed themselves. This concert may have celebrated the passing years, but Langridge possesses the energy and spirit of a young man, and such musicianship and generosity was justly cherished by the warm, admiring audience.

Claire Seymour


Schubert — Die schöne Müllerin (selection)
Vaughan Williams — On Wenlock Edge
Birtwistle — From Vanitas (world premiere)
Britten — Who are these Children?
Schubert — Winterreise (selection)