Thursday, March 11, 2010

"And unusual beauty..." Philip Langridge (1939-2010)

I learned earlier this week--and am still reeling from the shock--that the eminent British tenor, Philip Langridge died March 5 from bowel cancer. His final stage appearance was January 2 at the MET, in the character (and drag) role of the Witch in Hansel and Gretel. It is remarkable to think that show-stealing performance was from a tenor who had turned 70 and was still adding demanding new music to his repertoire.

I have long been an admirer of Langridge's individual beauty as a vocal artist. His voice was not the conventional/Italianate/Romantic operatic tenor of the type embodied by Pavarotti and Domingo. Nor was Langridge a typical "English" tenor of the ex-boy-choir, pure-and-clear school. Though he was most famous and successful as the true successor to Peter Pears (1910-1986) in Britten's dozen-some operas, Langridge's voice was unique.

"It's sweetness and unusual beauty
Made my heart to leap
And almost mad with ecstasy
They were such strange and wonderful things..."

Those words from Thomas Traherne, set by Gerald Finzi [1901-1956, see Dec 09 for a post on him] in his beautiful cantata for high voice and strings, Dies Natalis. Along with his classic recording of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (with a virile Sam Ramey as "the devil"), the Finzi was the first work in which I heard Landgridge's alluring and engaging voice.

His range--technically, dramatically, and stylistically--was astonishing. Just thinking out loud, I would bet Placido Domingo is the only singer alive with more roles under his belt. And I bet no singer learned more 20th & 21st century roles than Langridge. At the MET alone, I saw his signature Britten roles, the title role of Peter Grimes and Captain Vere in Billy Budd. His Andres in Wozzeck made that character's music seem as lyrical as the Schubert lieder he also sang so expressively. He was even more impressive in the grueling role of Aron in Schoenberg's great (yes, it really is!) opera, Moses und Aron.

In the past couple of seasons alone he created roles in new operas by two of the polestars of British music, the young polymath (composer, conductor, pianist) Thomas Ades, and the dean of British modernists, Harrison Birtwistle. He recorded nearly all of the Britten repertoire--operas, cantatas, songs, canticles, concert works (the orchestral cycles and the must-hear War Requiem), a host of other 20th century British rep (Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Finzi). And in addition to the new/avant-garde/"difficult" modern music he championed he was a notable Baroque singer. His Monteverdi Vespers is still a benchmark, as is his Messiah with Sir Neville Marriner and Les Boreades (Rameau) with John Eliot Gardiner.

When I started to search my itunes library for "langridge" 420 tracks appeared in the window. And that's probably less than half the number from his recordings that I own (though, per the stat above, I'm guessing I have a higher-than-average number of Langridge recordings...)

Langridge's singing was remarkable for many reasons. I think what sets it apart is the extraordinarily difficult to achieve balance between the technical range and facility (he sang Monteverdi as polished as he did Berg) and the emotional/dramatic (ie: expressive) range of his singing. He accomplished the rare feat of drawing one's attention to the beauty and meaning of the music through the voice without drawing attention away from the music (to the voice: through "focus stealing" affects, nuances, etc...). There was not a hint of self-consciousness in his singing. In musician's terms, he used his voice like an instrument, and found an astonishing range of colors in it.

There is a fine obit in the New York Times (as well as in the British papers, The Telegraph and The Guardian).

The Times quoted insightful words from a gifted singer who was also an insightful teacher (I missed studying under him at the Britten-Pears Programme by one semester, alas. I did meet him at the MET, during a Billy Budd dress rehearsal in 1997).

"I don't talk about technique, I talk about communication." Perhaps most helpful if a student already has technique, yet that advice could not be more apt in how one "teaches" expressivity and dramatic effectiveness. Langridge's own singing was an exemplary model of technical accomplishment that communicated directly and honestly, with sensitivity and a full palette of dramatic expressivity.

"One very useful exercise is to ask a student to sing, just once, as badly as they can. It's amazing what wonderful things come out when you give them that permission."

So many wonderful things came out of the voice of Philip Langridge. He communicated clearly, guilelessly. His singing was passionate and committed. He was not afraid to take risks, step (or sing) out of the box, and seemed to have maintained the admirable discipline of artistic integrity across the span of a lengthy career. Indeed, it is inspiring to be reminded his prime as a Britten interpreter was in his 50's and 60's. It is also encouraging and liberating to have such an honest and imaginative interpreter as a model. Technical polish or beauty-for-its-own-sake never trumped expression. If a plangent (or strident, harsh, "in-your-face") tone was a dramatic or expressive possibility, he would take it and confront you with it. His duet with John Shirley Quirk in the award-winning recording of Britten's War Requiem (with Hickox on Chandos) features one such moment on the punctuation of the line "Oh death was never enemy of ours!"

I could cite a host of such instances across an equally wide range of styles and periods. Besides the gamut of roles already mentioned, his Janacek song cycle, "Diary of one who vanished" causes one to hear this music for the one-of-a-kind soul-full music it is. His Schubert disc on the acclaimed Hyperion series features a program of mostly unfamiliar songs that makes me ask--every time I give it a welcome re-listen--"why aren't more of these songs sung." He had that unusual gift of engaging the head and heart. The other singers that come immediately to mind in this regard are Maria Callas and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Philip Langridge was no "conventional" operatic singer. The timbre of his voice (and much of the repertoire he essayed) was distinct (and therefore not to everyone's liking). But to those who know and love his art, his musical integrity, his dramatic range, and his singular and soulfully expressive voice, he was one of a kind.

1 comment:

Theresa Muir said...

I am very grateful to anyone who takes notice of the loss of Philip Langridge. He was a member of a generation of particularly gifted and distinctive singers, and losing any of them is like losing a dear friend.