James Bowman

Iffley Parish Church

By Giles Woodforde

Even nowadays, it seems, not everybody quite understands the countertenor voice. James Bowman, at the top of the countertenor tree for nearly 30 years, recently overheard a member of his audience asking her neighbour: "How does he sing like that?" The neighbour knew the answer straight away: "It's all done by ventriloquism."

James Bowman

Bowman is every bit as confident a presenter as he is a singer, and the ventriloquism story was just one of many he brought out to entertain a packed audience in Iffley Parish Church. His recital, for Iffley Music Society, was devoted to English song, ranging from Dowland to Britten.

As James Bowman kicked off with Dowland's If my complaints could passions move, his penchant for unexpected dynamics quickly emerged. After three decades at the top, his voice may not possess quite the flexibility it once exhibited, and his delivery may sometimes seem a spot mannered - compared with the likes of, say, Andreas Scholl. But he can make a thrilling sound, and his performances come complete with evident enthusiasm for the music he sings, plus the depth of emotion that experience can bring.

From Dowland, on to Purcell, and the death-defying vocal control needed in his Sweeter than Roses. Then Handel, whose mixture of stateliness and melody suits Bowman's voice particularly well - the famous and familiar Ombra mai fu from Xerxes was memorably delivered, as was the much more playful Non to diro col labbro from Tolomeo.

"This is not to be confused with Willow, tit-willow from The Mikado", Bowman told us as he introduced The willow song from Sullivan's opera Othello. Alas, Bowman couldn't convince me that The willow song is any match for its Mikado counterpart, and it was badly shown up by the following piece, Stanford's delightful setting of The rain, it raineth every day.

James Bowman's accompanist was Andrew Plant. The pairing was ideal, with Plant knowing exactly when to come forward and when to hold back. He also played two fascinating piano solos, a Percy Grainger arrangement of Dowland, and a tribute to Vaughan Williams from a set of miniatures by Herbert Howells. Plant missed a trick here, however - the set also contains a piece dedicated to legendary New College organist H. K. Andrews, who lived in Iffley.