Philip Langridge at Wigmore Hall

his long-standing commitment
to the work of Harrison Birtwistle has served the composer admirably; and as a
sensitive, skilful communicator of the nuances of narrative through music and
words, Langridge’s performances of Vaughan Williams and Schubert are
justly revered. This carefully chosen programme clearly had great personal
meaning to Langridge; and the Wigmore Hall was a fitting venue to celebrate
both his 70th birthday and the achievements and joy of a life in music.

Framing the recital with Schubert — excerpts from Die schˆne
and Winterreise — was a brave decision; as ever,
Langridge’s diction was superb, but while he embraced the German language
with ease and assurance, his voice no longer has the depth of tone and secure
focus of old. Lyricism was exchanged for emotional intensity: the dynamics
fluctuated rather wildly, as the tenor frequently resorted to a wispy head
voice in the upper registers, an overly dramatic effect perhaps for these
intimate songs. A few cracked high notes revealed the strain but, although the
voice perhaps now lacks the bright flexibility of youth, there was no doubting
Langridge’s emotional and dramatic engagement with the songs’
mournful narrative. Most successful were the sentimental, more restrained
songs: in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the
Brook’) pianist David Owen Norris’s delicate but assertive rippling
motif literally conjured the natural world and metaphorically tormented the
young miller with its ambiguous murmurings. Owen Norris was a thoughtful,
responsive partner throughout this recital, ever alert to subtle nuances,
enhancing — through dynamic gradations, rubati and ever-changing
textures and articulation — the melodic narrative. Occasionally the
dynamic contrasts may have been a little too sudden or exaggerated, the
sforzandi a touch strident, but the accompaniment matched the drama of
Langridge’s delivery. Fittingly, a haunting delivery of ‘Der
Leiermann’ brought the recital to a close; here, the subtle variations of
tempi produced a tension between the rigidity of the piano’s
droning, bare fifths, the coiling right-hand and the plaintive melancholy of
the voice.

Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge found Langridge in more
comfortable and relaxed mode. This was a bracing interpretation perfectly
suited to the folksong derivation and ambience of Vaughan Williams’
striking Housman settings. Tempi were perfectly judged. The brisk
eponymous opening song was propelled by the string tremolos and dynamic,
rocking piano motif which launches the cycle, and this momentum was sustained
in ‘From far, from eve and morning’. Alternations of
instrumentation — first voice and piano, now strings, then full ensemble
— introduced a note of poignancy into the third song, ‘Is my team
ploughing?’, most apt for a song that reflects with gentle nostalgia on
loss and love. The members of the Doric Quartet enjoyed the narrative role
played by the instrumental lines, the elongated triplets of the inner strings
enhancing the mood of yearning tinged with resignation. ‘Bredon
Hill’ is the emotional centre of the work: with crystal clear intonation,
the strings’ slowly rocking, divisi chords created a remarkable,
icy serenity, capturing the stillness and transparency of the bleached
landscape as piano bells echoed through the emptiness. The ensemble gradually
built up to a frightening intensity and Langridge, bitterly defying the tolling
bells, spat out the final words of the closing verse, ‘I hear you, I will
come’. This was superb ensemble playing, as Owen Norris and the Doric
Quartet magnificently supported and complemented Langridge’s varied
palette of colours.

Langridge has a long association with Birtwistle’s music: in 1986 he
created the title role the opera The Mask of Orpheus and also starred
in the 2008 premiere of Minotaur. ‘From Vanitas’ was
specially commissioned by the Wigmore Hall; a miniature for voice and piano,
Birtwistle’s sparse, delicately crafted score follows the long, drawn-out
lines and accumulating images of the text by David Harsent, his long-term
librettist. Langridge’s sensitivity to the sinuous, unfolding poetic
lines was superlative; voice and piano intricately interweave, as a rocking
figure played by the piano grows ever more urgent, reaching a tempestuous
climax before sinking to a deathly silence: ‘the window a mirror perhaps,
the room a wilderness.’

Britten’s Who are these children? demonstrated why Langridge
is considered a master of English song. The riddling rhymes of William
Soutar’s poems, with their Scots dialect and angular rhythms, are not
inherently ‘musical’ but Langridge brought melody and coherence to
these lines. He doesn’t project the text at the expense of the musical
line — there are no ugly exaggerations or distracting mannerisms; rather,
a relaxed unfolding in which musical and dramatic narratives are truly one.

The deeply appreciative audience at the Wigmore Hall were not likely to let
Langridge go without some ‘extras’. The first encore was a brief
mock-tragedy, delivered with mischievous insouciance; this was followed by a
boisterous rendering of a ditty from G&S’s ‘Utopia
Limited’, oozing ease and charm and demonstrating why Langridge is such a
natural on the operatic stage. Both performers clearly enjoyed themselves. This
concert may have celebrated the passing years, but Langridge possesses the
energy and spirit of a young man, and such musicianship and generosity was
justly cherished by the warm, admiring audience.

Claire Seymour


Schubert — Die schˆne M¸llerin (selection)
Vaughan Williams — On Wenlock Edge
Birtwistle — From Vanitas (world premiere)
Britten — Who are these Children?
Schubert — Winterreise (selection)

image_description=Philip Langridge [Photo: Richard Davies]
product_title=Philip Langridge at Wigmore Hall
product_by=Philip Langridge, tenor; David Owen Norris, piano; Doric String Quartet.
product_id=Above: Philip Langridge [Photo: Richard Davies]