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James Bowman is widely acclaimed as one of the twentieth century’s greatest countertenors. His influence, however has been greater than that of simply being a fine singer and musician. In the remarkable growth area of late twentieth-century music-making that is ‘historically-aware’ performance, James has been one of the enduring pillars. This disc gathers together twenty tracks from recordings he has made with The King’s Consort for Hyperion, adds one new aria recorded especially for this compilation (‘Erbarme dich’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion) and celebrates one of Britain’s most outstanding, and best-loved, musical giants.
'La intensa expresividad, la técnica y el color de la voz del cantante brillan' (Scherzo, Spain)
Around the same time, Bowman met David Munrow and was invited to join the Early Music Consort of London. For ten years, James’s characterful voice coloured the performances of that ensemble. He made dozens of records and toured all over the world. Typically, almost all James’s memories of that decade are (until Munrow’s tragic suicide) happy ones, and he recounts a host of stories of amusing things that happened whilst on tour. Equally typically, almost all of them are either wonderfully libellous or simply unprintable!
James’s strong personality on the opera stage following his debut for Britten ensured a steady flow of opera engagements: during his career he has appeared at almost every major opera house, including Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, La Scala Milan, Amsterdam, Vienna, Verona, Strasbourg, Aix-en-Provence, Paris, Sydney, Santa Fé, Dallas and San Francisco. In the early days of the period instrument revival he made a series of recordings for Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music, and also worked with other leading directors including Norrington, Harnoncourt, Gardiner and Leonhardt. Twenty years later he is still as in demand as ever to work with these names, but he is just as ready to work for a smaller orchestra or ensemble whose style he likes. He has never been interested in the life and trappings of being a ‘divo’, and many small festivals have found him willing to perform, simply because he liked the idea of going there. There can be few artists with whom it is easier to work.
James’s career has not been restricted to ‘early’ music. Alongside regular performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (from which, after 201 appearances as Oberon, he has now retired) he has given many premieres of modern repertoire. He has himself commissioned new pieces for the countertenor voice from composers such as Alan Ridout, Richard Rodney Bennett and Geoffrey Burgon. His enthusiasm and charisma on stage is almost legendary: anyone who has seen him perform the Roasted Swan in Orff’s Carmina Burana has witnessed a major event!
Alongside James’s concert work he has always found time to teach, albeit on a selective basis, and to take masterclasses (which he enjoys more), but a far more important contribution has been that which he makes behind the scenes, giving advice and encouragement to many younger singers, conductors and instrumentalists who have learned greatly from him. His commonsensical approach to music-making, and his generosity in giving his time and energy, is refreshing and inspiring.
Much of James Bowman’s concert and recording work over the last ten years has been with The King’s Consort, with whom he has given hundreds of concerts (including tours to Japan, Hong Kong and all over Europe) and made over thirty recordings. I first met him when, as a nervous twelve-year-old boy treble, I stood alongside him as we recorded the solo sections of the Purcell Jubilate and Te Deum. I well remember that day: he towered over me by several feet and immediately endeared himself by striking exactly the right mixture of humour and professionalism, but it was his performances that were a revelation. I later wore out my copy of the LP listening repeatedly to his singing: my love of baroque music started because of the way James performed it, and I know that I am one of many who has been so happily influenced by this extraordinary musician. Little did I guess in 1972 that, well over twenty years later, I would work regularly alongside him. The voice is even better, the outrageous humour is just the same, he still seems several feet taller than me, and his love of singing is still as strong and committed as it has ever been.
Central in James’ repertory have always been the works of Handel, Bach and Purcell: with his characterful voice, innate musicality and a magnetic stage presence he has done as much as any artist in the twentieth century to promote their works. This disc gathers together twenty tracks from recordings he has made with The King’s Consort for Hyperion, adds one new aria recorded especially for this compilation (‘Erbarme dich’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion) and celebrates one of Britain’s most outstanding, and best loved, musical giants.
Bach Erbarme dich
Bach’s St Matthew Passion was composed in 1727 and was intended for performance on Good Friday. For the past four years Bach had been writing cycles of church cantatas, and the intention seems to have been to surpass everything he had written previously. For the scene which tells of Peter’s triple denial of Jesus, the crowing of the cock and the distraught disciple’s bitter weeping, Bach produced one of the greatest of all arias, ‘Erbarme dich’. The alto soloist is supported by a glorious string accompaniment and one of the most ravishing violin solos in the entire repertoire.
Handel Almighty power
The rich scoring of Handel’s 1749 oratorio Solomon is nowhere more apparent than in the ecstatic instrumental writing heard at Solomon’s dedication of his new temple. In an accompanied recitative which gives as much importance to the opulent orchestral interludes as it does to the vocal line, divided violas and two solo bassoons create a sumptuously dark interior to the orchestral sound which is quite unique in all Handel’s oratorios and turns an accompanied recitative into one of the composer’s most memorable descriptive movements.
Purcell Britain, thou now art great
Why, why are all the Muses mute was the first Welcome Song that Purcell wrote for King James II, and was probably performed on 14 October 1685 at Whitehall, soon after the Court had returned from Windsor. The text celebrated the suppression of the recent attempted rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth. For the famous countertenor William Turner Purcell provided one of his finest ground-bass arias, ‘Britain, thou now art great’. As in so many of the Odes, the composer used a formula which never seems to have failed to produce magic: over a ground bass a solo alto weaves his line, which is then taken up at the midpoint by the strings and transformed into a ravishing ritornello.
Handel Yet can I hear that dulcet lay
The Choice of Hercules was first performed at Covent Garden on 1 March 1751 when it was offered as ‘an Additional New Act’ to the Oratorio Alexander’s Feast. Nearly three-quarters of the score had been reworked from the music Handel had written for a production of Alceste which was, in the event, never staged. In a simple allegory, the young Hercules is drawn in two different directions: on one hand Pleasure offers him an easy life, with cool fountains, shady bowers, music, feasting and coyly-phrased suggestions of possible amorous dalliance, and on the other he hears the admonitions of Virtue, by whom he is eventually won over, especially by the promise of immortality. Handel’s first aria for Hercules is a jewel. The strings, playing in the rich key of E major, represent gentle breezes, over which the alto floats the most exquisite of melodies. The falling bass line under the final, single-note repetition of ‘Can I those wilds of joy survey’ is quite delicious.
Come tread the paths
This lament, with a text from the Tragedy Tancred and Gismunda, comes from the latter part of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, which was often described as the beginning of a ‘Golden Age’. A fine example of a viol consort song with some particularly expressive harmonies, ‘Come, tread the paths’ was originally ascribed to William Byrd, but this is now generally considered to be a misattribution by the copyist.
Handel Crudeltà nè lontananza
Over half of Handel’s Italian Duets are early works, dating from around 1710. Included amongst those compositions was the duet for soprano and alto ‘Sono liete, fortunate’. The second section, ‘Crudeltà nè lontananza’, is especially attractive, with a slow, richly-harmonised opening leading to a fugue. Handel clearly liked this theme, for he later reused it in the overture to Judas Maccabaeus.
Purcell O solitude, my sweetest choice Z406
The poem ‘O solitude’ was a translation by the poet Katherine Philips of ‘La solitude’ by Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant (1594–1661). Purcell’s setting probably dates from around 1684/5, and is based on twenty-eight repetitions of a ground bass. Over this hypnotic anchor Purcell illustrates the visionary text with the most ravishing melody, covering the regularity of the bass with overlapping vocal phrases, wonderful harmonic variety and a wealth of word painting to create one of his greatest masterpieces.
Bach Stirb in mir
Bach wrote four church cantatas for solo alto of which Gott soll allein mein Herz haben (BWV169) is the most extensive. Written for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (20 October) 1726, two of its movements were re-workings of an earlier concerto, now lost. The second of these, the gentle aria ‘Stirb in mir’, is a gem, with three elements—a solo organ, solo voice and strings—weaving their melodic lines into an enchanting siciliano.
Handel Impious mortal
Following the slightly unlikely success in 1733 of his first oratorio, Esther, Handel turned his attention to the story of the prophetess Deborah. Handel rapidly assembled the oratorio, basing many movements on a variety of former compositions. Despite the choice of a rather curious episode from the Book of Judges, the music was splendid. Barak’s retort to the opposition General Sisera in a dramatic and busy Act II is the beautiful aria ‘Impious mortal, cease to brave us’. Originally heard in the Brockes Passion, where it is used for Peter’s prayer after the denial, here it gives noble strength to Barak’s unshakeable faith in God.
Purcell By beauteous softness mixed
For the six years from 1689, as his contribution to the annual birthday celebrations of Queen Mary, Purcell provided a substantial musical setting of an Ode. For his first offering in 1689 he set a text by Thomas Shadwell, ‘Now does the glorious day appear’. The highlight of the work is the alto solo, set over a wistfully sighing four-bar dropping ground bass, ‘By beauteous softness’. One of Purcell’s most ravishing solos, the voice’s final phrase is overlapped with an exquisite five-part string ritornello of quite melting beauty.
Gabrieli O magnum mysterium
Gabrieli’s motet O magnum mysterium comes from a collection published in 1587, and maintains a fitting mood of subdued reverence, until syncopation finally breaks out for the closing ‘Alleluia’. Compared to others of Gabrieli’s Christmas motets, this is a relatively small-scale setting, for two four-part choirs. We score the first choir for four voices, and the second choir for the rich combination of solo countertenor and three sackbuts.
Handel Tune your harps
At the start of Haman and Mordecai the Jews, persecuted by Haman, rejoice because Esther has been made Queen. Before the general songs of praise begin, a single Israelite is provided with one of Handel’s most wonderful arias. Over an accompaniment of pizzicato strings an oboe floats the most exquisite solo line, joined after the first phrase in duet by the vocal soloist. Here is Handel’s writing at its most radiant, creating a transparent texture for one of his most ravishing melodies, and sharing that melody between the solo voice and an equally important obbligato instrumental line.
Ford Since first I saw your face
Thomas Ford was appointed one of the musicians to Prince Henry in 1611, later becoming one of the lutes and voices to Prince Charles, serving him up to 1642. His lute songs, however, date from before 1607, when his Musicke of Sundrie Kindes was published in London. Probably the most famous of that collection was ‘Since first I saw your face’: with its charm, its touching sensibility to the text, and yet its inherent simplicity, it is one of the finest lute songs of the period.
Handel Welcome as the dawn of day
After the opening celebrations of Act I, Solomon welcomes his wife, Pharaoh’s daughter and promises her a new palace. We are left in no doubt as to the attraction Solomon feels for his Queen and, to reinforce this feeling, Handel provides a hymn to their undying love. Set over a walking bass, ‘Welcome as the dawn of day’ is one of the composer’s most radiant duets, full of delicious interplay between the two soloists.
Purcell An Evening Hymn
The ‘Evening Hymn’ is one of Purcell’s greatest Devotional Songs: over the hypnotic anchor of one of his most eloquent ground basses the singer weaves a magical melody, calmly resigned not only to end the day in peace, but also ready to accept the blessings of heaven. The extended final series of Alleluias are personal, far removed from the extrovert settings more usually associated with that word.
Handel Thou shalt bring them in
During 1745, whilst George II was away, Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, landed with his army in Scotland and started to march south, seemingly unstoppably. A degree of panic arose in London and, with a patriotic fervour that had not been seen in the capital for many years, songs were written to support the army. Handel felt it necessary to make his own musical contribution. His Occasional Oratorio was composed in something of a hurry and, as always, the composer was not afraid to recycle good material from earlier works. One such recycling was the the fine alto solo ‘Thou shalt bring them in’, originally heard in Israel in Egypt.
François Couperin Jerusalem, convertere
Couperin’s Trois Leçons de Ténèbres were amongst the small amount of Couperin’s ecclesiastical music that was published during his lifetime, appearing in print between 1713 and 1717. The text was traditionally sung at Matins on Maundy Thursday, with other sections performed on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. During the singing, fifteen candles would gradually be extinguished until the service ended in darkness. Each of Couperin’s three Leçons, which have an intensely personal feel to them, ends with Jeremiah’s warning to the people of the Holy City to ‘turn to the Lord your God’: this extract closes the first Leçon.
Handel Or la tromba
The staging of Rinaldo in the Haymarket Theatre in 1711 was lavish and full of special effects, including ‘Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations, and Fireworks; which the audience may look upon without catching Cold, and indeed without much Danger of being burnt, for there are several Engines filled with Water, and ready to play at a Minute’. These devices were brought to a climax in Act III when, accompanied by the full orchestra, Rinaldo leads his forces into battle against the evil sorceress Armida and her general Argante with the splendidly warlike ‘Or la tromba’.
Purcell On the brow of Richmond Hill Z405
Purcell’s setting of Tom D’Urfey’s ‘On the brow of Richmond Hill’ was published in the sixth and last book of The Banquet of Musick (1692). D’Urfey was one of the most popular playwrights of the latter seventeenth century, also writing poetry, odes and lyrics of all kinds. His ‘Ode to Cynthia’ proved hugely popular and Purcell’s setting of it was reprinted up to 1721. Richmond Hill sits some ten miles to the south-west of the City of London: the seventeenth-century view from the top of the hill, looking down into the lush green valley of the river Thames, around which were sited a variety of fine stately homes belonging to the good and the great, was one of the finest vistas of the capital and its environs.
Handel Eternal source of light
Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne was most probably written for performance on 6 February 1713. The work was a substantial one, with nine movements containing a variety of solos, duets and choruses. But it was in the opening section, clearly influenced by the music of Purcell (whose work Handel much admired) that the composer produced his most inspired writing. For the famous alto Richard Elford and an obviously fine trumpeter, supported by sustained string chords, he provided a ravishing movement which ranks amongst his finest.
Purcell Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day For the celebrations of St Cecilia’s Day in 1694 Purcell produced a setting of the ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Jubilate’ which was performed in St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street. Despite the grandeur of the sections for full choir and orchestra it is the chamber movements which contain the greatest gems. The centrepiece of the ‘Te Deum’, which finds Purcell at his most personal, is ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’, set for the composer’s favourite countertenor voice. It is a genuine plea from the heart, made all the more poignant when we realize that exactly a year later Purcell himself was dead. Here is the composer at his most profound, piling up sequences and dissonances and pleading for mercy in the most ravishing vocal and string writing. The serenity with which the movement ends suggests that this is one prayer which may be answered.
Robert King © 1996