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“Songs for Ariel”
16 Mar 2006

Songs for Ariel

Of the countertenors coming to the fore in the generation following Alfred Deller, few, if any, have achieved the prominence or performance longevity of James Bowman.

"Songs for Ariel"

James Bowman, countertenor; Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord and piano

Satirino SR052 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

Now in his mid-sixties, he has had a career of some four decades that ranges from early repertories with David Munrow and the Early Music Consort to baroque opera (especially Handel and Cavalli) to a significant number of modern roles in operas by Britten, Maxwell Davies, and Tippett, among others. This present recording, “Songs for Ariel,” presents a recital of mostly English pieces that acknowledge both the range of his career and its deep-rootedness in the English tradition. Far from a retrospective recording, however, “Songs for Ariel” is a vibrant performance that amply demonstrates the continuing vitality and beauty of Bowman’s voice.

The characteristic trademarks that made Bowman’s sound distinctive forty years ago remain distinctive now, and familiarity has in no way lessened its appeal. Bowman offers a generously resonant sound that he maneuvers with an unusually graceful flexibility, especially prominent in the way notes connect one with another and in the elegant contours he lavishes on individual notes and phrases. His sound moves like a fine skater skates: sometimes the tones move with propulsion; other times the tones are released in order to glide and float. A rich expressive palette, indeed.

The program here is well chosen: an unaccompanied plainsong, an Elizabethan lute song by Dowland, some Purcell ayres, a Handel aria or two, and songs and opera excerpts by Rubbra, Britten, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Tippett, Howells, and Andrew Gant. The unaccompanied plainsong, “Salve Regina,” is something of an emblematic beginning for the recording as a whole, for it presents the beauty of Bowman’s sound without the distractions of accompaniment or musical complexity. And it is that beauty of sound that forms the connective thread throughout the various styles. In that light, it is the simpler, more tuneful pieces that seem the most memorable—Purcell’s “Fairest Isle,” and Britten’s “Down by the Sally Gardens” are fine examples—though certainly in the more technically demanding pieces, Bowman also meets the challenges with commanding confidence, as in Handel’s cantata “Ho fuggito amore,” where the intricacy of figuration is negotiated with admirable ease.

There are a few issues here and there. Occasionally the highest notes will show a degree of strain, as in the Vaughan Williams “Woodcutter’s Song” or Warlock’s “The Night,” and there are some oddities in the accompaniment, as well. The Dowland lute song, for instance, is accompanied on the ottavino, an octave spinet sounding up an octave, which seems ill-suited to the full resonance of Bowman’s voice. In a similar way, the harpsichord interlude in “Fairest Isle,” played in the four-foot register, as well, is something of a stylistic jolt. That said, however, the playing of Kenneth Weiss is richly collaborative and convincing, making him a full and interesting partner in this music making of the highest order.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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