Review: James Bowman at Queens’

THOMAS NEAL: ‘Despite coming up to his seventieth year, Bowman still has the capacity to move musician and layman alike’

A Midsummer Nights Dream Alfred Deller Andreas Scholl Bowman Britten Charles Villers Oberlin Queens' Russell

Wednesday 5th May, 7:30pm in the Old Hall, Queens’ College, Cambridge (£10/£5)

James Bowman, Countertenor; Ian Thompson, Harpsichord and Piano

The advent of period performance practice and the revival of eighteenth-century opera mean the days of viewing the countertenor as an ‘intriguing sideline’ are long gone. But in recent years the challenge has been to prove what ‘les voix blanches’ have to say to modern audiences in other repertoire – a task ably undertaken by this evening’s recitalist. In the opulent arts-and-crafts surroundings of the Old Hall in Queens’ College, a mixed audience of around sixty were treated to an unforgettable recital given by the renowned countertenor James Bowman, accompanied by former Queens’ organ scholar Ian Thompson.

The recital opened with a simple but touching performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Ego flos campi’, infused with the composer’s characteristic melancholy. This was followed by two of John Dowland’s lute songs, ‘Shall I sue, shall I seek for grace’ and ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’. After an interlude of Orlando Gibbons’s ‘Pavana’ from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, beautifully played on the harpsichord by Ian Thompson, came two songs by Henry Purcell – ‘Fairest Isle’ from his opera ‘King Arthur’ (with a charmingly naïve libretto by John Dryden) and ‘Sweeter than roses’ from the incidental music to Richard Norton’s ‘Pausanius’. Although often a Purcell-sceptic, I found these two songs among the most moving performances of the evening, with Bowman’s glorious upper register blossoming in this repertoire. Thompson then gave a dazzling performance of Byrd’s fiendishly complex ‘Fantasia’, with cascades of scales and jarring cross-rhythms visibly energising performer and audience alike.

In contrast, Bowman then presented a selection of pieces by twentieth-century English composers, beginning with Humphrey Clucas’s attractive lute-song ‘Evenfall’, which presents a striking text by A E Housmann and in which Bowman demonstrated an exceptionally pure tone with an almost child-like naiveté. This was followed by Vaughan Williams’s ever-popular ‘The Call’ from the ‘Five Mystical Songs’, in which Bowman gave an enchanting delivery of George Herbert’s famous text; and then a poignant setting of Yeats’s much-loved ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ by Ivor Gurney, which is perhaps even more attractive than the more famous settings by Britten and Ireland. The first half of the recital concluded with ‘The rain it raineth’, a setting of the text from Act V of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ and composed by Queens’ alumnus Charles Villiers Stanford.

The second half of the evening opened with the aria ‘I know a bank’, which is sung by the fairy-king Oberon in Britten’s celebrated opera ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – a role which, Bowman informed us, he had sung so many times (178 performances in 10 productions, to be precise) that one columnist dubbed him “rent a fairy”. Bowman then sang two arias by Handel – ‘Va godendo’ from the opera ‘Serse’ and ‘Return O God of Hosts’ from the oratorio ‘Samson’, in which he displayed a brighter and more cutting tone, negotiating the scalic runs with complete ease and composure. This was followed by a sterling performance of Handel’s four-movement Suite no.5 in E (HWV 430) for harpsichord, which delighted the audience throughout, especially in the famous fourth movement – the Air and Variations known as ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. The evening concluded with two more songs by Purcell, ‘Oh! Lead me to some peaceful gloom’ from ‘Bonduca’ and a beautifully tender performance of ‘An Evening Hymn’, ending with those wonderfully playful ‘Hallelujah!’ figures.

Despite coming up to his seventieth year, Bowman still has the capacity to move musician and layman alike, and easily stands alongside the legendary names of Alfred Deller, Russell Oberlin and the ever-popular Andreas Scholl. It has often been said that the superlative has no future, but if James Bowman and Ian Thompson continue to delight audiences as they did last Wednesday, then they can have no hope of a quiet retirement. And I for one eagerly await their return