Instincts honed by constant speculation
My first experience of Philip Langridge was way back in the early 70s, when he sang and conducted Priaulx Rainier’s The Bee Oracles in the Purcell Room. It stuck in my mind. I know now how typical of Philip such a thing was – the unusual repertoire, the supreme all-round musical competence, the immensely memorable performance. Our paths didn’t cross until 1993, when I played piano and celesta on the Collins Classics recording of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, where Philip sang Quint. We recorded the ghost story at Snape Maltings, which provided some ghostly gossip of its own: every time I played the Quint chord, a cold draught whispered across the stage, and at the very moment Miles blew the candle out, all the electricity failed. I played for Philip on a couple of other Britten recordings in the next few years, and we found we got on. Our trust in each other’s metrical waywardness was a source of great satisfaction to him – he always referred to us as The Recitative Duo.
He liked my interest in early pianos, and we worked on Schubert’s Winterreise, finding a wonderfully simple way to communicate the circumstances of its composition. I’ve spilt a good deal of ink over the years on the fact that the first 12 songs stood as a complete work for many months, and that Schubert died before he could fully consider what might have become the final order. Philip’s dramatic instincts cut through my words: I was ‘discovered’ on stage at the piano, and Philip (in the character of Schubert, I’m sure) brought my copy to me, showing me the first song with a significant smooth-the-book-open gesture of the thumb – he was always expressive with his hands while singing. He then walked round behind the piano, and emerged as the Traveller, and we explored the songs together. After the first twelve, he sat down on stage, silent for three minutes, and then we resumed. Audiences understood, with no word spoken.
Such direct, demonstrative procedures were at the heart of Philip’s performances. It would do him a great disservice to call them ‘instinctive’: he honed them by constant speculation about what it means to be human. His conversation, his teaching, his rehearsals, were all dominated by an immense and sympathetic curiosity about what really makes people tick, from the different narrators in a Britten song cycle to a soldier in the Great War, from the man who wouldn’t let us into the car park to the child in the green room after the concert.
Our last collaboration was his Wigmore Hall celebration, a few weeks before his 70th birthday in December 2009. Harrison Birtwistle wrote a new song, and our day’s outing to sing it at the composer’s home, with its thorough and eager exploration of the church and the museum, not to mention the flood of anecdote in the car before and after, will live in my mind. The audience was a Who’s Who of the musical world, and our rehearsal of On Wenlock Edge with the Doric Quartet was one final example of Philip’s delight in a new generation of musicians. His discussion, his experiments, were as if he had never sung the piece before, and the resulting performance was a particular triumph. We ended the concert with Der Leyermann, the haunting final song of Winterreise. ‘Wunderlicher Alter, soll ich mit dir gehn?’
David Owen Norris