Philip Langridge, David Owen Norris & Doric String Quartet at Wigmore Hall

Die schöne Müllerin, D795 [selection: Das Wandern; Wohin?; Halt”; Danksagung an den Bach; Am Feierabend; Der Neugierige; Ungeduld]
Vaughan Williams
On Wenlock Edge
From Vanitas [World premiere]
Who are these children?, Op.84
Winterreise, D911 [selection: Der Wegweiser; Das Wirtshaus; Mut!; Die Nebensonnen; Der Leiermann]

Philip Langridge (tenor) with David Owen Norris (piano) & Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone (violins), Simon Tandree (viola) & John Myerscough (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 3 November, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Philip Langridge. Photograph: large and supportive audience assembled for this Celebration Concert, Reference to Philip Langridge’s 70th-birthday (next month, on the 16th) was absent but Langridge was clearly looking across the total perspective of his career: his foreword in the programme mentioned his debut and the direction his career took in its early stages, how comprehensive it was and is and where and how opera fitted in. He acknowledged the important role of his singing teacher, Iris Dell’Acqua. “She has kept my voice active and fresh”, he attested, before revealing that he looks forward to the extension of his operatic career well into the future.

Langridge’s choice of repertoire for this recital was self-confessedly a reflection of important features of his concert career. One of them has been Schubert Lieder. Instead of a group of discrete songs he chose to programme selections from each of the two cycles, opening with the first seven songs of “Die schöne Müllerin” and ending with the last “Winterreise”. It seemed specious to argue, as Richard Stokes did in his programme note, that precedent from many decades ago justifies a custom which all would now agree we have grown out of.

In the event, neither group did Langridge’s Schubert-singing much justice. Afflicted, it seems, by a dryness of throat (caused by Wigmore Hall’s air-conditioning, which was switched off during the interval) and which needed frequent recourse to water, there was a sense of tension throughout the ‘Müllerin’ selections. Only half a voice was evident in places in ‘Das Wandern’: the tonal balance disturbed by held notes which protruded lumpily alongside some syllables which disappeared altogether. The precarious state of the voice came into the open with a crack in the first refrain of ‘Ungeduld’. Like the fallen rider, however, he got straight back into the saddle and delivered a fearless and sturdy “Dein ist mein Herz, und sol les ewig bleiben” next time round.

David Owen NorrisThere was plenty of imaginative intent and some varied colouring to express it. The poet was audibly puzzled by his own feelings in ‘Wohin?’ (“Ich weiss nicht, wie mir wurde”), then desperate in his appeal to the brook to reveal its destination (“O Bächlein sprich, wohin?”). The signs of hysteria in ‘Am Feierabend’ and impetuosity in ‘Ungeduld” were matched by some beautiful head notes for the mill-girl’s goodnight wish. The singer’s individual timbre has long been constructed of a judicious use of mixed voice. This came more to the fore in ‘Der Neugierige’, where consistent beauty of tone joined with David Owen Norris’s delicacy of touch in creating a mood of peace to accompany the poet’s address to the water.

Doubts about the wisdom of addressing Schubert’s songs at this stage of his career re-appeared in the “Winterreise” selections. Words robbed of their full value and a preference for parlando, plus an occasional sagging of pitch have to be reported. To compensate, the bleakness of this final episode of the traveller’s story came alive with power and psychological intensity. He immediately positioned himself in the world of the by-now weary footslogger. One could discern clues to a complete interpretation by the team of singer and pianist. Langridge was mesmerised by the signpost in ‘Der Wegweiser’, the shouts of defiance in ‘Mut!’ were empty bluster. And what of the state of body and spirit of the organ-grinder? Under Norris’s fingers his strength was clearly ebbing, his mechanical singing phrases either weak or quickly flagging.

Doric Quartet. Photograph:“On Wenlock Edge” was a completely different story. The mixture of conversational word-setting and concentrated pathos suited Langridge’s vocal condition and the addition of his operatic experience added up to a recipe for a fine and anxiety-free performance. The opening songs had a theatrical quality. The title song juxtaposed instrumental vigour with the singer’s Grimes-like sensibility. In ‘Is my team ploughing?’ the two characters were boldly differentiated , the ghostly voice tentative and increasingly uneasy, his living usurper aggressive and peremptory, clearly scoured by guilt. ‘Bredon Hill’ was a perfect union of forces. The eerie instrumental sonorities from the excellent Doric Quartet were overlaid on the iambic lilt of the opening stanzas describing the young lovers’ courtship. Ominous figures from the piano heralded the winter funeral and all three forces united in the depiction of the growing peal of bells, which became overwhelming. How skilfully has Vaughan Williams combined folk-poetry with musical sophistication, nowhere better than in ‘Clun’. The final lines consist of swaying piano chords and the imitation of the singer’s phrases by the string soloists, only for the latter to settle into the piano’s gentle rhythm, here producing a mournful ending of great beauty.

The Britten work, in the austere style of his late period, presents a serious test for the listener but there can be no doubting the rewards for the accompanist: detail in the children’s songs and riddles in Scots, larger-scale invention in the reflective English poems. Norris was, as always, fiercely focused. Hunched over the keyboard, he was attentive to every detail of the piano part. The Scots songs have some charming moments such as the lullaby ‘Bed-time’ and the vivid depiction of the cocksure kitchen servant in ‘The Larky Lad’. The deeply-felt quartet of poems encompasses themes of injustice and exploitation with an immense compassion for children. The restless accompanying figures which underlie the settings of the first three of these strongly reinforced the singer’s emotions.This is surely a cycle which is not open to any voice type: a tenor it must be. The vocal line deliberately revolves around the area at the top of the stave which was Peter Pears’s most expressive region. One was made conscious that Langridge still remains the tenor most akin in vocal conformation to Britten’s partner. The setting of the last formal poem, ‘The Children’, about the suffering of the innocents in wartime, hovered between outrage and sympathy in the singer’s delivery, with some affecting use of head voice. The concluding folk setting ‘The Auld Aik’ united the two parts of the work as the pessimistic message invaded even the previously artless verse. If Langridge showed some signs of fragility in the closing songs of this cycle it was understandable, even fitting.

The world premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s setting of a section of David Harsent’s poem “Vanitas” reflected Langridge’s advocacy of new music. The estimable clarity of his enunciation was to the fore here and the passage of self-reflection “Best to be watchful now, best to be still” was reminiscent of the isolated Peter Grimes. The vocalism softened the edges of a generally uncompromising setting, the details of whose accompaniment were again conscientiously projected by Norris.

The encores were a setting by Victor Hely-Hutchinson of nonsense verse, and ‘A tenor, all singers above’ (from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Utopia Ltd”), whose lines about a tongue of leather and a palate as dry as a crust were amusingly so relevant to his own condition. The waters of Langridge’s once clear, liquid tone have gone rather brackish and clouded but it is still a thoroughly expressive instrument and it is to be hoped that he has several years left of singing appropriate repertoire.

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