Langridge/Norris/Doric Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Philip Langridge may have lost his youthful glamour as Britten’s post-Pears tenor mouthpiece - presumably he doesn’t have that vital picture in the attic - but at 70 he’s still debonair.

And where better to celebrate his birthday than in the hall where his kind of music is naturally at home? His programme would consist of works which meant much to him, plus the first public outing of a new song by Harrison Birtwistle, to whom he had, as a soloist, in the past rendered sterling service.

The seven songs from Schubert’s ‘Die Schone Mullerin’, with which he opened his recital with pianist David Owen Norris, made an oddly uneasy start. His dynamics rose and fell sharply in almost every couplet, as though constantly pushing the emotion to exaggerated extremes. This may be normal for opera - Langridge is primarily an opera singer - but it’s death to the sustained legato style which these songs demand, and it deprived them of their structure. Sometimes his sound was desperately bright, sometimes dulled to a wisp, and his high notes occasionally cracked, in a reminder that the voice, like its owner, had aged.

But the rest of the recital was a triumph. Vaughan Williams’s song-cycle ‘On Wenlock Edge’ - inspired, and admired, by Ravel - is a marvellously original take on Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’, in which singer and pianist are supported by a string quartet. Here Langridge seemed relaxed, bringing a fullness of tone to these suggestive, folksong-imbued pieces. The sepulchral ambiguities of ‘Bredon Hill’ were intensified by the way the Doric Quartet seemed to lay down a carpet of frost while the piano evoked church bells in the distance; as Langridge sang it, the bitterness, anger, and resignation of the final verse was chilling.

Birtwistle’s ‘From Vanitas’ was a miniature for singer and piano which might have emanated from the Second Viennese School. The would-be oracular text didn’t in any way mar the ingenious deftness with which the vocal and instrumental lines wove patterns: this was Birtwistle in a surprising new guise. The twelve miniatures of Britten’s ‘Who Are These Children?’, which followed, were brilliantly delivered by both Langridge and Norris, with five songs from Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ making a perfect conclusion; I have seldom heard ‘Der Leiermann’ sound so ghostly and pathetic. Langridge’s first encore was a mock-tragic trifle; his second a rumbustious ditty from G&S’s ‘Utopia Limited’. Bravo!