16 Oct 2021

Icons: James Bowman

In celebration of James Bowman's forthcoming 80th birthday, Edward Breen looks back on a long and splendid career which established the countertenor voice in mainstream musical life.



For more than three decades James Bowman was the figurehead of the countertenor revolution: his discography spans Leonin 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 with the Ricercar consort: Cantate Ad Alto Solo, especially his performance of Vivaldi’s Vestro principi divino, RV 633 (04/93) 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 James 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 Russel Oberlin in America, Bowman offered something more straightforward, joyful and, crucially, robust. Live and on record his energy and enthusiasm were palpable.

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To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Awards issue 2021)

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