Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Doing himself Justice - Langridge at the Wigmore Hall

Why do we go to live recitals? There is much more to live performance than simply sound. On a recording you can get perfection, preserved forever in one moment, suspended in time. It never changes even though the circumstances in which you're listening change - as you change, yourself. It's not really natural. Live music is an altogether different experience.

Philip Langridge has had a long and illustrious career. His singing has given so much pleasure for so many years that coming to his 70th birthday recital at the Wigmore Hall was like catching up with someone you've cared about for years. Even though they've got a bit grey and don't leap about as much, they're still the same person at heart.

Langridge has nothing to prove. So what if his voice was tight in the first half? Things improved significantly in the second half. Quite likely he was more upset than anyone else. Good singers aren't stupid. I don't have anything to prove either, by nitpicking technicalities. This recital was an exercise in watching how a singer communicates by more than just voice. A friend in the audience noticed how expressive Langridge was, a legacy perhaps of years in opera, which is as much about creating a role as vocalizing it.

More impressive, to me, was that Langridge was premiering a new Birtwistle piece, Vanitas. It's about still life paintings of the 18th century, allegories to show the transcience of life. The lines are elegaic, yet simple and direct, as you'd expect of the poet David Harsent. Birtwistle has set them so they flow languidly, fitting well with Langridge's strengths - fluid and smooth in the lower range, phrases like "curved like an antique vase". Variations created by changes of pace and structure, rather than extremes of register. Birtwistle's lines aren't easy to sing as they swell within lines, rather than following the natural cadence of speech, but Langridge shows how it's part of the strange, unworldly atmosphere of the song.

Vanitas is a good piece, which we'll no doubt hear sung again by perfectly precise voices. But Langridge sang with such restrained dignity that it was very moving. These lines are about the passage of time. They're so subtle that emotional nuance transforms them from sound to feeling.

Britten's Who are these children? gave Langridge many good moments. These songs range from jaunty to fairly grim, giving Langridge a chance to create each one as an individual "event". Then, in the encore, he showed his true mettle by choosing "A tenor, all singers above" from Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia Ltd. It's a hilarious satire, giving Langridge a chance to send up the whole idea of song. A man who can laugh under pressure and connect to an audience so well, definitely does himself justice! Here's the text - imagine it sung with gusto and exaggerated rubato. Since Langridge's problems were caused by dryness, the lines were heatfelt:

(When a tenor's in love) "It's certain to tell on his singing--
You can't do the proper chromatics
With proper emphatics
When anguish your bosom is wringing!
When distracted with worries in plenty,
And his pulse is a hundred and twenty,
And his fluttering bosom the slave of mistrust is,
A tenor can't do himself justice,
Now observe--(sings a high note),
You see, I can't do myself justice!
I could sing if my fervour were mock,
It's easy enough if you're acting--
But when one's emotion
Is born of devotion
You mustn't be over-exacting.
One ought to be firm as a rock
To venture a shake in vibrato,
When fervour's expected
Keep cool and collected
Or never attempt agitato.
But, of course, when his tongue is of leather,
And his lips appear pasted together,
And his sensitive palate as dry as a crust is,
A tenor can't do himself justice.
Now observe--(sings a high note),
It's no use--I can't do myself justice!"

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