James Bowman bows out at Wigmore Hall
Legendary countertenor gives last London recital
Bowman had said he didn’t want it to be an emotional occasion, and such was his self-deprecating chat between performances (a masterclass in endearing stage informality) that the tone was one of levity rather than a dwelling on the passing of an era. But what an era closed with his final bow. Bowman first graced the Wigmore stage in 1967, as part of an audition with David Munrow’s Early Music Consort for the influential agent Emmie Tillett. In subsequent years Munrow went on to transform perceptions of early music, while Bowman would go on to pick up Alfred Deller’s mantle and elevate a voice type only really then preserved in the English choral tradition, into a central part of the vocal music world. In doing so, he paved the way for today’s countertenor stars such as Andreas Scholl, David Daniels, and Iestyn Davies. His richly colourful voice and interpretative skills – in early repertoire of course, but also that of the 20th century, including the Voice of Apollo in Britten’s Death in Venice which he premiered – are captured on more than 180 recordings.
It was through one of those, a David Munrow recording, that the young Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani first encountered both Bowman and the countertenor voice (and, for that matter, the shawm, crumhorn and dulcian). Demonstrating an adept line of his own in stage-banter, he produced from his pocket the very cassette he’d bought aged 10 – Pleasures of the Royal Courts – and proceeded to ask Bowman to sign it, tucking the spilling spool back as he did so. The curious may be relieved to know you can now find it on Spotify.
Bowman had invited Esfahani to join him for this concert, to accompany him, but also to perform solo. The harpsichord’s charm, to my ear, lies in its greater delicacy over its more mighty keyboard descendants – it gives it a human-scale fragility in the slower movements and palpable playfulness when the tempo steps up. Performing Bach – including Ouvertüre nach französischer Art – Esfahani also drew an astonishing variety of colours from the instrument, not to mention offering an edge-of-seat display of virtuosity. Bowman, back in 1970, had been the first countertenor to sing at Glyndebourne. On July 18 Esfahani gives the first ever solo harpsichord recital at the Proms. Reflecting on Bowman’s milestone from the perspective of today’s musical world, in which the countertenor plays such an important part, makes one blink in surprise at how relatively recent it was. Let’s hope, looking back four decades from now, that we’ll feel the same about Esfahani’s Proms premiere.
In the first half Bowman sang music by Purcell, including a delightfully graceful Fairest Isle, and in the second we heard Handel’s cantata Vendendo amor – ‘it’s taken me 40 years to learn it’ said Bowman to laughs. He closed with more Purcell, An Evening Hymn, and we, the audience, closed with a standing ovation. When great artists take their final bow people often reach for the phrase ‘we shall never see his like again’. But the greatest compliment we can pay James Bowman is that such has been his advocacy and artistry that we shall, and indeed already do, hear his like (if not, clearly, the very same) again, and often.