S & H Recital Review

Handel, Arias from Operas and Oratorios: Celebration for James Bowman's 60th Birthday. The King's Consort, James Bowman, Carolyn Sampson. Wigmore Hall, December 31st 2001 (ME).

Anyone fearing that such an evening as this one would inevitably turn saccharine, would not have had to worry for too long; there was no gushing, no sentimentality - just an evening of music-making of the most joyous kind, a fitting celebration of the work of one of this country's greatest singers.

Robert King and his Consort have long been associated with the music of Handel and, of course, with James Bowman himself, so it was entirely right that they should have chosen an all - Handel programme, with a mixture of much - loved gems and slightly less familiar pieces. The overture to "Tamerlano" set the tone for the evening, with fresh, lively, youthful playing, transporting us to the fashionable London of 1724 when Handel's music was all the rage. This was followed by a marvellous performance of a scene from "Jephtha," depicting the warrior lover's anxiety at his departure from his beloved and their eventual realisation that love will be all the sweeter once their trials are over. The rapport between Bowman and Sampson was something wonderful to see and hear; recitative and aria tripping off their tongues, lines delivered with real panache as well as vocal beauty.

The arias from "Guilio Cesare" which followed were object lessons in Handelian singing style; both singers produced unfailingly lovely tone, but it was Bowman's incisiveness of attack and inhabiting of his role which made "Aure, deh, per pietá." a performance to treasure, and the following duet "Più amabile beltá" was simply perfection; this is what it must have been like to hear the great singing rivals of Handel's day, giving their all in performances which demonstrated the best kind of competitive edge, each trying to knock spots off each other in the delight of displaying their skills.

The high points of the evening were the closing arias from "Solomon," one for each singer and a final duet. Carolyn Sampson sang the touching "Can I see my infant gored" with directness and simplicity, moving us with her heartfelt "Take him whole!" - she is clearly a very musical singer. The final duet was "Welcome as the dawn of day," surely Handel's most perfect, with its noble walking bass setting and its delectable interplay between the singers, both of whom clearly enjoyed performing it as much as we did hearing it. "What though I trace each herb." was taken very fast, but Bowman still gave us every note in place, phrasing the wonderful lines with all his renowned skill, subtly varying each repetition of "How vain were all I knew." I wanted to hear it again, at once.

Andreas Scholl has said that Bowman was his role model, and one can see why; after more than thirty years before the public, the older man is still leading the way in showing how to bring a character to dramatic life and how to inhabit the music so that it seems an extension of the self. This joyful evening was a fitting tribute to a great singer, the only tiny disappointment being that a K did not emerge from the just-announced Honours List; next one, perhaps. Long may he flourish.

Melanie Eskenazi


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