mon 24/02/2020

James Bowman, Mahan Esfahani, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

James Bowman, Mahan Esfahani, Wigmore Hall

James Bowman, Mahan Esfahani, Wigmore Hall

An evening of Baroque music celebrates a great career

In a career of over 40 years, Bowman has educated the ears and tastes of several generations, shaping a distinctively English tradition of countertenors that currently includes the likes of Robin Blaze, Iestyn Davies and Will Towers. An ongoing association with the music of Benjamin Britten has found in him a powerful and charismatic Oberon, and it was Bowman who created the Voice of Apollo in Death in Venice. Yet aside from Britten, it is inevitably in the period repertoire that Bowman is best known and best loved. It was here, in the music of Purcell and Handel, that he chose to bid farewell to the London concert stage.

An irrepressible and charming raconteur, it seemed only with difficulty that Bowman was able to tear himself away from his repartee and anecdotalising and turn his attention to the music. The same feisty humour that carries his jokes is transformed in his singing into pure communicative energy, and was at its best in the music of Purcell that occupied the first half. While the lower reaches of the voice are faded, the top still has its ringing potency, and hearing Bowman dispatching classics such as “Fairest Isle” and “Thrice Happy Lovers” with such easy familiarity was a reminder of just how much of this repertoire is (and will remain for some time to come) synonymous with his voice.

After the interval we moved to Handel, with the lovely and little-known “Tacerò, pur che fedele” from Agrippina, caressed with delicate da capo ornamentation by Bowman, enjoying a dialogue with the flourishes of Esfahani’s realisation. Cantata Vedendi amor offered a gem in the form of “Camminando lei pian piano”, an aria that was the second-cousin of “Va Tacito” from Giulio Cesare, diverging from the pomp of the latter into more reflective territory and drawing some new tenderness from Bowman.

PCM1-ESFAHANI-Mahan-1-CR-Marco-BorggreveWith his first solo Prom scheduled for this summer (performing the mighty Goldberg Variations) 27-year-old Mahan Esfahani (pictured right) is poised to lead a new generation of harpsichordists into the early-music scene. Opening the concert with Bach’s Ouverture nach Französischer Art, he balanced the mournful solemnity of the opening movement with quite the most abandoned Echo I have heard, its jets of scalic release all the more striking for being entirely out of character with the controlled efficiency of the rest of the suite. If Esfahani’s speeds do push to the swifter extremes they seldom actually trip over themselves, but I might have preferred just a little more restraint in movements such as the first Passepied, to allow the syncopations to blossom fully. It was the same story in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, where the brisk Prelude gave way to a foot-to-the-floor Fugue, making up for in exhilaration what it lost in dance rhythms.

Returning for his only encore, Bowman declined to name it: “If you don’t recognise this one you shouldn’t be here.” What else could it be but Purcell’s "Evening Hymn", hailing the setting of the sun not only on the day but a unique and beloved career. Coaxing the tenderest of legatos from out of hiding, Bowman slid into the final applause and ovation with consummate grace, and it was with genuine (and slightly moist-eyed) pleasure that I was able to join the standing crowd to celebrate this greatest of English vocal masters.

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