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Philip Langridge 70th Birthday Concert - Schubert, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Birtwistle: Philip Langridge (tenor), David Owen Norris (piano), Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone (violins), Simon Tandree (viola), John Myerscough (cello), Wigmore Hall, London, 3.11.2009 (BBr)

Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin, D795 (1823) (seven songs)
Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge (1909)
From Vanitas (2009) (world première)
Who are these children?, op.84 (1969)
Schubert: Die Winterreise, D911 (1827) (five songs)

In a personal note at the start of tonight’s programme book, Langridge wrote, “When I played the violin, I played anything written for that instrument, and assumed that it would be the same for a singer.” This singer, unlike so many, has given his art to music of all periods and he has never shied away from the most contemporary music, both on the concert platform and in the opera house. Composers need singers of this calibre to disseminate their works for a wider audience. Would that there were more like Philip Langridge!

For his 70th Birthday concert – it seems incredible – Langridge brought together some fine musicians and gave a show which will long remain in the memory. Bookended by Schubert – rather a clever idea this - the first handful of songs from Die Schöne Müllerin showing the young lover striding forth into the world, and the final five songs from Die Winterreise bringing us down to earth with a crash, contemplating the lack of an immediate future, meant that there was so much to enjoy in this recital.

I have never been a fan of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, finding it to be somewhat long winded and rather too self satisfied. The problem of course, is that George Butterworth’s settings of Housman, written three years after the VW, are so perfect as to overshadow just about any other settings of words from A Shropshire Lad, even those of Ivor Gurney. Tonight  however, bringing his years of experience into play, Langridge made a very persuasive case for the piece. Yes, there are faults in the work, but here Langridge brought out the intensity and real emotion, when necessary, but never allowed the work to become maudlin – which, for me, VW so often can. Langridge was especially good in Is my team ploughing?, a dialogue between two friends, one of whom is dead, where he found exactly the right voice for each protagonist and didn’t fudge the ending where the living boy tells the dead one that he is cheering a “dead man’s sweetheart, never ask me whose.” The visionary ending was well realized, time seeming to be suspended  as the music faded into silence. David Owen Norris and the Doric Quartet were perfect partners in Langridge’s interpretation.

Because of the air conditioning there were a few vocal problems, none of which were so great that they could not be surmounted. The second half progressed without difficulty, and started with a specially written song by Harrison Birtwistle, full of warm lyricism and an intense vocal line, this should achieve a major place in many singers' repertoires, for it is a very beautiful utterance. This was followed by Who are these children? – late Britten at his most compressed and intense. Setting words by the Scot William Souter, this masterly work contrasts lyrics, rhymes and riddles in both Scottish dialect and English. There is a particularly poignant setting of The Children which is permeated with the sound of air raid sirens. It’s a very powerful and personal work and Langridge was alive to every nuance.

But the show didn’t end with a telling of the old oak falling and Die Wintereise’s fatalism for Langridge was not going to send us home to mope into our beer:  he told us of the problems of the life of a tenor with Gilbert and Sullivan’s A tenor, all singers above, from Utopia Limited.

This was a splendid show and one which demonstrated some very fine singing, ranging from the most declamatory to the quietest of whispers, and displaying the sure sense of artistry which his many years of experience have brought to him. If only Langridge could go on for another 70 years, I, for one, would welcome it. Mind you, I'd be fairly long in the tooth myself by then, of course.

Bob Briggs



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