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Music Pages

Graham Johnson and Steuart Bedford remember Philip Langridge

8 April 2010

Philip Langridge as Aschenbach in the Opera Australia 2005 production of 'Death in Venice'
Philip Langridge as Aschenbach in the Opera Australia 2005 production of 'Death in Venice'(Photo: Branco Gaica)

Philip Langridge as Marquis in Berg's 'Lulu' at the Royal Opera
Philip Langridge as Marquis in Berg's 'Lulu' at the Royal Opera(Photo: Clive Barda)

Following the death last month of Philip Langridge, pianist Graham Johnson and conductor Steuart Bedford have spoken to Opera Now about their memories of working with Langridge, his legacy and the qualities that made him one of the finest English tenors of his generation.

“Philip was an unpublicised national treasure”, says Johnson, “and in terms of what he did to serve British music, I can’t think of any British artist who deserved a knighthood more.”

Well known for his interpretations of Janáček and modern British operas, Langridge particularly excelled in the works of Britten, successfully reinventing roles that had been written originally for Peter Pears.

“Along with Anthony Rolfe Johnson, he was one of the generation of tenors who inherited the mantle of Peter Pears,” explains Johnson. “When I heard Philip in the flesh do Death in Venice at English National Opera, I told him that he was the greatest Aschenbach I had ever heard – which is remarkable considering that I helped Peter Pears learn this role and was his friend and admirer for many years.”

Bedford, who recorded Britten’s The Turn of the Screw with Langridge for Collins, was similarly impressed: “You can’t really go about Britten’s work by copying Peter Pears. You have to do it your own way, and Philip was one of the people who managed to do that successfully. His interpretations were always entirely valid and convincing.”

According to Johnson, the fact that Langridge had trained initially as a violinist meant that he approached singing with an unusually strong grasp of musical form and structure: 

“Somebody who understands sonata form after having performed violin sonatas will think of music in larger structures, and will never interpret an operatic role as a series of individual phrases and sections. I know that one of the things Claudio Abbado loved about working with Philip was this total musicianship. Abbado felt a musical kinship with Philip.”

Langridge turned 70 last December but his future schedule showed no signs of plans to slow down. According to Johnson, “the fact that Philip died ‘in harness’ – with several years of future engagements already in the diary – is evidence of the commitment that led him to master so many roles in such different operas.”

Searching for a suitable epitaph for Langridge, Johnson cites ‘Starry Vere – god bless you’ from the libretto of Britten’s Billy Budd: “This phrase, sung by the sailors on deck as they turn to salute their captain, captures Philip’s star-like quality and his important position as a role model for the younger generation.” 

The full transcript of this interview with Graham Johnson will appear in the May/June issue of Opera Now.

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