Philip Langridge - one of the greats

James InverneMon 8th March 2010
Philip Langridge, an operatic hero (Photo: Richard Davies)Philip Langridge, an operatic hero (Photo: Richard Davies)

Lamenting the death of the superb English tenor

I’m sure much will be written about the tenor Philip Langridge, who died on Friday aged 70. But allow me to add a personal note. Langridge was for me in many ways the tenor. By which I mean that there are precious few operatic performers in any repertoire for whom a performance becomes truly and visibly all-encompassing, where voice and interpretation become fused to a point of sometimes almost uncomfortable intensity. Among tenors, Jon Vickers had it, Domingo has it in certain roles, Langridge always – always – had it.

If it is true that in terms of beauty of instrument Langridge yielded pride of place to some of his contemporaries – Anthony Rolfe Johnson could do things with his voice that Langridge could only dream of. But for Langridge the voice – at once clear and haunting – was an imprint of the soul. I was at English National Opera the night his Grimes seemed to scorch the stage, and our minds, in its harrowing depiction of a man who simply cannot understand or adapt to the hammer blows of fate. That night Langridge was a man possessed, his Grimes a spirit in torment – and happily it was filmed for posterity. Yes, I was there that night. And the next.

I was there too for his Winterreise, his lonely traveller a cousin of his Grimes. By the end, Langridge made us realise that the repetitive tune of the hurdy-gurdy man was also the sound of a mind slowly going mad.

He could do comedy, his Loge in Das Rheingold at Covent Garden underscored by bitter humour. And he was pretty versatile. But it is for the great Britten anti-heroes that he will surely be best remembered. They’re calling him Pears’s successor. But I’m not sure that even Pears himself ever reached the tragic heights that Langridge attained (though I never saw Britten’s muse live). Once you’ve watched that Grimes film I referred to, seek out the companion Billy Budd, also from ENO. Watch the bearing of Langridge’s wracked Vere in the epilogue – crumpled, seemingly inside as well as out. It is unforgettable.

I met him for the only time at last year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. I told him he was one of my operatic heroes. Ever humble, he replied, “What a great honour.” The honour was ours.

James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company.

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