The International Wimbledon Music Festival is only in its fourth year, and yet it has world-class musicians coming to perform in SW19. The standard of music making on this opening night was second to none, and the quality matched that of some of London’s biggest venues.

Susan Bickley © Julie Kim
Susan Bickley
© Julie Kim

With period instruments, three smaller works to complement Dido and Aeneas and the presence of much-loved countertenor James Bowman, it promised to be an impressive evening. Bowman gave his farewell concert at the Wigmore Hall last year, so his appearance was much to the delight of the audience.

The concert opened with Celebrate this festival, written in 1693, and clearly very appropriate for the occasion. The music was appropriately joyous in its triple-time and dotted rhythms, and you really believed everyone’s sense of excitement. Next we were treated to Music for a while, and having sung this myself, it is always interesting to hear other adaptations. At the age of 71 James Bowman has really perfected it. The singing was silky smooth and resonant, and he wandered around the stage as he sung, actively engaging with his ground bass accompaniment from the cello, theorbo and harpsichord. The audience all seemed in awe at the unimaginably beautiful sound, and the singers and instrumentalists behind Bowman just smiled, watching the master at work.

To end the first half we had Come ye sons of art, away, said to be one of Purcell’s most elaborate works. Written just a year after Celebrate this festival, the growth of the composer’s ambition is obvious. This features the famous countertenor duet “Sound the trumpet”, and sung by Bowman and Robin Blaze it turned into a virtuosic war of ornamentation and a competition of dynamic control and technique. It was very amusing as Bowman danced round Blaze, who was trying to remain professional and not laugh, but this playfulness never jeopardized the standard of singing. Other highlights from this work were the recorder duet and the repeating joyful chorus: “tune all your voices and instruments play, to celebrate this triumphant day”.

This pleasant beginning to the concert whetted the palette for Dido and Aeneas, one of Purcell’s most famous works, which surely needs no introduction. The chorus continued to excel themselves in this, the particular highlight being the laughter after the Sorceress’ evil plans, with the lyrics “Ho, Ho, Ho” throughout. This is normally handled in a typically British, reserved way, but they really went for it with plenty of nasality, and even added their own extension! On the contrary, the emotional chorus number at the end of the opera, “With drooping wings”, was very sensitively portrayed, showing the range of styles these singers can pull off.

Some of the minor soloists also came from the choir: most impressively Harriet Johnson (Second Woman) and Helen Semple (First Witch). Sailor Tom Emlyn Williams gave an amusing rendition of “Come away, fellow sailors”, singing from the back of the church, and conductor Andrew Edwards also performed well throughout; he stepped back to let the soloists shine but also led the large ensemble confidently.

Now on to the soloists, who really were phenomenal. To me Susan Bickley just is Dido; not only because she is the performer I have seen most often but because she gets so involved in her character. The famous lament “When I am laid in earth” was heartbreaking, and she sensitively turned round to listen to the chorus, and interacted with the other soloists well. Although Aeneas is a smaller role, Njabulo Madlala was fabulous with a rich voice that easily filled the venue. Swedish soprano Malin Christensson handled the challenging part of Belinda well, and although I felt she was slightly holding back, her voice has a nice tonal quality and the difficult passagework was managed admirably. Lastly Robin Blaze: it is hard to find enough superlatives to describe this voice, but he had the necessary evil in his character and his voice was nonetheless beautiful. In the aria “Our next motion”, the top Gs were the best I have ever heard and the word-painting on “bleeds” was superb. Countertenors are often too quiet or overpowering, but none of this with Robin Blaze; he must be one of the leading countertenors of the time.

It is definitely worth making the trip to South London for the remainder of the festival if you can; this really was an impressive evening, with a choir who beamed huge spirit and talented soloists and opened the festival with a bang.