James Bowman, much-loved countertenor, has died aged 81
Tuesday, March 28, 2023
Major musical partnerships included with both Benjamin Britten and David Monrow
James Bowman, one of the last century's leading countertenors and a much-loved figure, has died aged 81. In tribute, we re-publish here our recent Icons feature by Edward Breen, written for Gramophone to mark the singer's 80th birthday, and which celebrated his unique contribution across many years to musical life.
For more than three decades James Bowman (b1941) was the figurehead of the countertenor revolution: his discography spans a broad repertoire, from Léonin to Britten and beyond, he has performed with crumhorns, sung about eglantine and firmly obliterated any notion of the countertenor as a limited voice.
As a teenager, I was first bewitched by his recital album with the Ricercar Consort, ‘Cantate ad alto solo’, especially his performance of Vivaldi’s Vestro principi divino, RV633 (4/93), with its smooth lines and stylish sense of rhythm. I envied his warm, immediate sound and tried in vain to emulate the evenness of his lower register. It wasn’t long before I heard him sing Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I was captivated anew. Like those who discover new films through the work of a favourite actor, I followed Bowman through the countertenor repertoire unaware that at the same time his very performances were defining new boundaries for that voice. Coming a generation after both Alfred Deller – who spearheaded the countertenor revival in England – and the impressively stentorian-toned American Russell Oberlin, Bowman offered something more straightforward, joyful and, crucially, robust. Live and on record, his energy and enthusiasm were palpable.
The first mention of Bowman in this magazine is characteristically modest: a small advertisement (11/63) for a seven-inch disc of motets sung by the choir of New College, Oxford. His musical education followed a path familiar to many British singers: from child chorister to Oxford choral scholarship, during which time Deller had already surpassed the traditional confines of the choir stalls. Bowman was a minor celebrity during his Oxford days, and when he auditioned for Britten in 1967 to sing the role of Oberon, he inherited the first modern countertenor role of the 20th century, one which had been written for, and created by, Deller.
Thus, on his second appearance in Gramophone (12/67), as soloist in Purcell’s Te Deum with King’s College Chapel Choir and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Willcocks, the reviewer Stanley Sadie couldn’t help but reflect thus: ‘I heard him as Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, and was impressed then, and am still more now – it is the best counter-tenor singing I can remember hearing since Alfred Deller was in his prime.’ So began a significant musical relationship which led to Bowman singing in the premiere of Britten’s Canticle No 4, The Journey of the Magi, in 1971 and creating the Voice of Apollo in Death in Venice (1973).
Another great partnership also had its origins in the 1960s. With characteristic candour, David Munrow here in the pages of Gramophone (5/74) remembered the first time he heard Bowman sing, highlighting his instant attraction to the countertenor’s voice: ‘I heard James Bowman and thought that here was the most fabulous “noise” I’d ever heard.’ The occasion was a madrigal rehearsal at the house of the harpist Marilyn Wailes. Bowman became the star singer of Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London. Of their many superb collaborations, a perennial favourite is the 1973 album ‘Music for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain’, on which Bowman sparkles with quick-witted onomatopoeia on the top line of La tricotea Samartín la vea from the Madrid MS Cancionero Musical de Palacio. A track or two later, he and tenor Martyn Hill sing Alonso de Alva’s Ut queant laxis with an arresting sense of line and stillness.
With Christopher Hogwood, Bowman’s affinity for Handel is striking; when he recorded Orlando (1989-90), his approach brought a menacingly simple edge to the extraordinary mad scene of Handel’s eponymous hero. Bowman’s Orlando looks one in the eye as he spirals out of control, the membrane separating him from reality laughably thin. Yet it’s this uncluttered tone that draws me repeatedly to Bowman in sacred Baroque works, and back to Vivaldi. He also recorded the Stabat mater with Hogwood, and it still sounds sensational today despite receiving a dry review from Denis Arnold in these pages. In the ‘Eja mater verse’, listen to where the text changes to the first person: the humility of Bowman’s interpretation accommodates both a direct appeal to the Virgin and a blushing, fountain-shaped phrase as he describes her as the ‘fons amóris’ (fount of love).
The countertenor voice is constantly evolving, from the beauty of Michael Chance, to the glassy perfection of Andreas Scholl, to the astonishing mezzo-soprano quality of David Daniels, and now to a new generation of vibrant and edgy opera stars. Underlying all these changes, Bowman’s ‘fabulous noise’ is a constant source of musical delight and inspiration, and his generosity as a teacher and mentor is legendary.
James Bowman: Defining moments
c1965 – Bowman and Munrow
Bowman invited by Munrow to join his group for its inaugural concert at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
1967 – Bowman and Britten
While teaching at a prep school Bowman successfully auditions for Britten’s English Opera Group (auditioning in the ‘crush bar’ at the Royal Opera House, London) to succeed Deller in the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1970 – On stage at Glyndebourne
Bowman becomes the first countertenor to sing there, as Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto conducted by Raymond Leppard. Cast also features Janet Baker
1990 – Preserving Oberon on record
Bowman finally records his interpretation of Oberon with the City of London Sinfonia under Richard Hickox (8/93)
2011 – A sparkling recital
Bowman’s retirement recital at Wigmore Hall (May 21), London, with harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, sells out and features Handel’s mischievous cantata Vedendo amor, HWV175, which inspired his famous aria ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ in the opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto
The Essential Recording
Vivaldi - Nisi Dominus. Stabat mater
James Bowman counterten Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood Decca