Since Michael Tippett – convinced that he was hearing the true voice of Purcell – plucked an unknown falsettist called Alfred Deller from the choir stalls of Canterbury cathedral in 1943, to future fame and fortune, the race of modern countertenors has waxed exceedingly. Yet, in Britain at least, perhaps none of Deller's successors has proved so ubiquitously successful as a concert and stage performer and recording artist as James Bowman, nor in so vast a range of repertoire, from earliest medievalry with David Munrow to thorniest up-to-date Elisabeth Lutyens.
New Year's Eve at the Wigmore, featuring eight sonorous members of the King's Consort, directed from the keybord by their volatile founder, Robert King, was billed as a Bowman 60th-birthday celebration, though the effusively deferential Bowman himself seemed to regard it rather as a showcase for his fellow soloist, the radiant young soprano Carolyn Sampson, with whom there was a great deal of billing and cooing in their duets. And the programme consisted entirely of extracts from Handel operas and oratorios, with sprightly readings of the overtures to Tamerlano and Berenice opening each half.
The most immediate quality of Bowman's voice was always its burnished power, its trumpet tone compared with Deller's more plangent oboe sound. After some 35 years continuous usage, that power tends now to be concentrated not only in the middle range, but in the middle of the note, with consonant attacks and endings rather swallowed, so that diction is unfortunately no longer as unfailingly clear. Yet the artistry with which he is still able to turn his vocal resources to account was never more apparent than in the scena "Ah, si, morro", from the 1727 opera Admeto, in which the florid intensity of the character's dying falls was wonderfully matched by the feeling of King's players for Handel's yearning suspensions.
And in the duets with Sampson – the vernal "Welcome as the dawn of day" from the oratorio Samson and the outrageously bouncy "Piu amabile belta" from Giulio Cesare – Bowman proved vivacious as ever, while Sampson's mesmerisingly sustained account of the solo aria, "Se pieta di me non senti", from the same opera, framed by some eloquent violin phrasing from the leader of the King's Consort, Lucy Russell, was perhaps the hit of the evening. After a nuptial knees-up of a duet from the opera Ottone by way of encore, a packed house went home evidently well-satisfied.