James Bowman, The Last London Recital

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

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 clichÈ 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 ‘Ouvert¸re nach franzˆsischer Art’, sweeping
through the successive dances – Courante, Gavottes, Passpieds, Sarabande,
BourrÈes 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
clichÈ, 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

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

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 ‘TacerÚ, 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

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: Ouvert¸re nach franzˆsischer 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: ‘TacerÚ, pur che fedele’, from Agrippini, HWV 6, ‘Vedendo amor’ HWV 175

image_description=James Bowman
product_title=James Bowman, The Last London Recital
product_by=James Bowman, countertenor; Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 21st May 2011.
product_id=Above: James Bowman