THE much-loved and ever youthful Ian and Jennifer Partridge have given their last recital together. In a characteristic programme of English song and German lieder, they entertained and enchanted a large audience at Westminster School, including many friends and former colleagues, and brought to a conclusion a partnership that has graced the musical scene for nearly half a century.
It is difficult to believe that Ian Partridge had his 70th birthday this year. He has gradually been reducing his performance commitments, but with no reduction in the beauty and intelligence of his singing, nor in the total musical rapport that he shares with his sister, a brilliant and distinguished pianist in her own right, who has worked, and will continue to work, with other artists, vocal and instrumental.
Like so many male singers of his generation, Ian Partridge’s first experiences were of church music, as a chorister in his father’s church choir at Bexhill, East Sussex. After New College, Oxford, where he was a chorister under H. K. Andrews, he went as a music scholar to Clifton College, during the time of Douglas Fox, the organist who had a distinguished career despite losing his right arm after wounds received during the First World War.
After studying at the Royal College of Music — where his teacher was adamant that he was a baritone — and then at the Guildhall, Ian originally appeared as a piano accompanist, but sang tenor in the Westminster Cathedral Choir under George Malcolm from 1958 to 1962, before devoting himself full-time to professional singing in 1963.
Jennifer first appeared with her brother at the Hastings Music Festival when she was 14, and this was their 431st professional recital together, in addition to many memorable recordings.
The duo has been remarkable in giving thoroughly idiomatic performances of German, French, and English songs, and music ranging from the medieval period to the present day. Ian has had a long-standing partnership with the actress Prunella Scales in a programme of words and music reflecting the life of Queen Victoria, and his performance as Britten’s St Nicolas for Thames Television won the Prix d’Italia in 1977.
International conductors with whom he has worked include Adrian Boult, Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis, Carlo-Maria Giulini, and Leopold Stokowski. He has sung with and directed the group Pro Musica Antiqua and the Purcell Consort of Voices.
Above all, Ian has been an outstanding Evangelist in the Bach Passions, which he first sang in English, later in German, in both cases producing a wonderful stream of golden tone and impeccable articulation that carries the drama irresistibly forward to its inevitable conclusion. He regrets that he never recorded the St Matthew Passion — nor, indeed, Handel’s Messiah. So do his many admirers.
This Westminster performance was not quite the last (only with Jennifer): there is to be a recital with Sholto Kynoch at the Oxford Lieder Festival; completing the circle by returning to the city where he was a choirboy; a performance of Warlock’s The Curlew for the Peter Warlock Society and Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge at the Arts Centre, Poole.
The Westminster recital, ranging from John Dowland to John Jeffreys, was sheer delight from beginning to end, elegantly delivered, but with characteristic lack of fuss. The programme was in more or less chronological order, with a neat bridge from Purcell to Schubert by way of Haydn’s Original Canzonettas, settings of English words. The plainsong-like lines of Jeffreys’s “Black Stitchel” perhaps appealed to the singer for their similarity to the chant he so enjoyed singing under George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral. And it was good to see English lute song — lately hijacked by the early-music specialists — restored to the traditional medium of voice and piano.
Far from taking life easy, Ian will continue to pass the torch to students at the Royal Academy of Music, where he has been a professor since 1996, and will continue to be a sought-after and stimulating adjudicator at singing competitions. I recall some excellent programmes he used to present on BBC Radio 3 about singers of the past. Perhaps there will be more of them; for he is a natural broadcaster.