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James Bowman
27 May 2011

James Bowman, The Last London Recital

It’s easy to slip into platitudes when eulogising the last London recital performance of a singer commonly lauded as the outstanding countertenor of his generation.

James Bowman, The Last London Recital

James Bowman, countertenor; Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 21st May 2011.

Above: James Bowman


After more than forty years of superlative music-making in the opera houses and concert halls of the world, on Saturday evening at the Wigmore Hall James Bowman bid a fond farewell to London audiences, who first witnessed his supreme artistry, musicianship and generosity in 1967 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – a year which also saw him first perform the role of Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the English Opera Group, a work with which he has had a long and distinguished association.

The excitement and sense of ‘occasion’ which buzzed in the foyer was more than matched by the joy and warmth of the reception which greeted Bowman’s appearance on the platform. But, there was no sense of cliché or routine about the evening’s performance, in no small part due to the presence of the young Iranian harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani, who is quickly establishing himself as the leading harpsichordist of his generation.

Esfahani opened the recital with a vibrant, even effervescent, performance of J.S. Bach’s ‘Ouvertüre nach französischer Art’, sweeping through the successive dances – Courante, Gavottes, Passpieds, Sarabande, Bourrées and Gigue – with a rhythmic muscularity that was both shocking and exhilarating. He relished the drama of this music, emphasising the rhetorical flourishes of the Courante, while also bringing control and clarity to the more intricate cadences of the Passpieds. Esfahani is physically involved with his instrument, delighting in the sounds of its mechanism; rising from his seat as if his whole body is contributing to the production of sound, he positively foregrounds the instrument’s mechanism. Never does technique, albeit astonishing, outshine the music: an astounding array of tones and shades was matched by an attention to the expressivity of the dense counterpoint, and a concern to convey the power of harmonic tension and release. Ornamentation provided both decorative elegance and forward momentum, as Esfahani revealed his mastery of the architecture of the form, injecting a relentless energy into the streams of even, running semi-quavers and triplets to convey a sense of the composer’s effortless creative outpouring.

After the interval, Esfahani explored the rich resonances and full textures of Bach’s Adagio in G (BWV 968), presenting the repeating rhythmic motifs with weight and majesty, and eloquently declaiming the delicate cadential features. The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 984) gave new meaning to the cliché, tour de force. The relentless unravelling of the ceaseless passage work was not marred by a single hesitation or stumble, yet there was no sense of perfunctory note-spinning, and every contrapuntal dialogue was crystal clear – a true conversation of musical voices. It was as if Esfahani believed that the composer had presented him with an entity, a musical ‘being’, which must be both intellectually and physically overcome and mastered. The major cadences which concluded both Prelude and Fugue were both triumphal and celebratory.

Despite such glories, the spotlight shone firmly on James Bowman. Bowman’s first ever performance on the Wigmore Hall stage took place in November 1967, during an audition as a member of David Munrow’s ‘Early Music Consort’, before the legendary agent, Emmie Tillett. The ensemble went on to become one of the most ground-breaking and inspiring groups among the early music specialists, leading the way in the revival of period performance. Thus, three settings by Henry Purcell were a fitting choice with which to begin. Although he took a little time to settle, and the intonation was not always reliable (several upwardly resolving appoggiaturas had just a little too much ‘piquancy’), Bowman still possesses a remarkable vocal instrument: for range of colour, sheer beauty of sound, and flexibility between registers there are surely few who can match him. In ‘The Queen’s Epicedium’, whose Latin text laments the death of the ‘Queen of Arcadia’ which has silenced the lyres and poets of the land, his manipulation of chromatic inflection demonstrated his real involvement with the text and the sheer beauty of the lyrical enunciations and melismas conveyed the sincere grief that cannot be expressed ‘by lamenting breast’s/ Unrelenting sobbing’. The final vision of ‘Her star, immovable,/ [which] Shines on in the heavens’ powerfully expressed a bright optimism. Throughout Esfahani’s accompaniment provided understated but perfectly judged support, punctuating and enhancing the textual nuances through pointed alternation of major and minor modes, as in the rhetorical declaration, ‘The Queen, alas,/ The Queen of Arcadia is gone forever’.

Bowman’s diction was crisper in the subsequent English settings ‘Fairest Isle’ and ‘Thrice Happy Lovers’. In the former, the ringing tones delighting in the fact that ‘Venus here will choose her dwelling’ were equalled by the quiet tenderness of Dryden’s concluding lines, ‘And as these excel in beauty,/ Those shall be renown’d for love.’ Despite his years, Bowman embodied youthful enchantment in ‘Thrice Happy Lovers’, with its more elaborately melismatic style and telling interplay between voice and harpsichord.

The first countertenor to sing at Glyndebourne (in Cavalli’s La Calisto in 1971), there is scarcely an opera house in the world in which Bowman has not appeared. He concluded the recital with Handel, demonstrating an effortless legato in ‘Tacerò, pur che fedele’ from Agrippini, placing precisely nuanced weight on particular syllables to enhance the affekt. A sequence of three recitatives and arias followed, confirming Bowman’s innate feeling for the rhythm and form of dramatic texts, and his music range, both technical and expressive. ‘In un folto bosco ombroso’ was notable for controlled phrasing, while the pastoral calm, enriched with erotic intensity, in ‘Camminando lei pian piano’ was truly breath-taking. Intervallic leaps were effortlessly articulated and assumed intense affective meaning. Vocal agility was on display in the concluding ‘Rise Eurilla, Rise Amore’, the decorations adding thrill and excitement to the da capo form.

The audience’s reception was rapturous and heartfelt. Though a rising star himself, Esfahani was clearly moved and honoured to be part of such a stirring musical occasion. We were permitted one encore, which Bowman prefaced with the typically playful quip: “If you don’t recognise this one you shouldn’t be here.” What could be more fitting than Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ to end the proceedings; threading a remarkable tapestry of diverse colours, Bowman’s final word was a fitting one: ‘Hallelujah!’

Claire Seymour


J.S. Bach: Ouvertüre nach französischer Art, BWV 831
Henry Purcell: The Queen’s Epicedium, Fairest Isle, Thrice Happy Lovers
J.S. Bach: Adagio in G Major, BWV 968, Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 984
George Frideric Handel: ‘Tacerò, pur che fedele’, from Agrippini, HWV 6, ‘Vedendo amor’ HWV 175

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