16 Jan 2011

The Art of the Countertenor

Since he first came to notice a few years ago — in Messiah in this very hall, as Creonte at Covent Garden, and as Arsace in Partenope at New York City Opera, to name by a few recently acclaimed performances — many a starry accolade has been heaped upon young Welsh countertenor, Iestyn Davies: “achingly beautiful tone”,“unforgettable focus and poignancy” and “compelling sense of rhetoric” are typical of the bountiful superlatives.

This recital of gems from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries undoubtedly confirmed why Davies deserves such acclamations. Moreover, a concert of two distinct halves, it demonstrated the extraordinary range of his technical accomplishments, musical insights and dramatic embodiments. Unaffected and assured, he does not seek to impose himself upon the music; rather, his easeful stage presence and innate appreciation of the requirements of each particular musical medium allows the music itself to rise to the fore. The voice never distracts; it is only at the final cadence that one realises how supremely the song has been served.

We began in the seventeenth century with an exquisitely compiled and meticulously researched programme. Not only were the names unfamiliar but works were chosen to demonstrate idiosyncratic, and often unusual, qualities. Benedetto Ferrari’s triple-time, ‘Voglio di vita uscir’ (‘I want to depart this life’) introduced us to the Italian court musician, librettist and theorbo player’s penchant for the chaconne bass. Davies’ fresh, unaffected voice moved effortlessly between registers, particularly in the expressive recitative with which the song closes.

In ‘Figlio dormi’ (‘Sleep son’) by Giovanni Girolami Kapsberger — a celebrated virtuoso on the lute and theorbo — accompanist Richard Egarr’s gentle introduction and delicate instrumental episodes summoned to mind the affectionate, tender strumming of the lute. Embellishments were relished by both performers, and perfectly judged. This traditional ‘Ninna la nanna’ lullaby charmed and calmed; in contrast, the continuous, oscillating, two-note motif which underpins Tarquinio Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’ bewitched and disconcerted, before the consoling serenity of the final major key cadences.

Listening to Richard Egarr’s accompaniments was the aural equivalent of watching a painter at work. Relaxed and confident, instinctively attuned to the ‘colours’ of each song, Egarr selected just the right tints and shades from an extraordinarily rich palette of tones and textures. The ground bass in Ferrari’s devotional cantata, ‘Quest pungenti spine’ was superbly realised; the surprising dissonances between voice and harpsichord were piquantly emphasised but never exaggerated. Davies’ breath control is extraordinary and was on display in a variety of contexts: in the extravagant vocal gymnastics of the more elaborate coloratura episodes of cantatas by Porpora and Vivaldi; in Antonio’s Cesti’s intricate, freely exploratory lines in ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ (‘Gape open, ye abysses’); and also here in Ferrari’s long-held, tender opening notes. From the initial lyrical tranquillity, the countertenor found just the right sentiment of yearning and ‘sweet torment’, building as the lines become more florid and impassioned, to an ecstatic conclusion: “my Lord and God;/ they are the divine arrows/ that, softened and tempered/ by heaven’s fire/ attract and delight — ”. The chaconne bass is interrupted four times by recitative refrains, and the performers’ mastery of the formal structure more than matched their command of musical detail — and their delight in the harmonic pungencies.

The second half saw us on the more familiar terrain of the eighteenth century. In Porpora’s cantata, ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’ (‘Ah, if only my heart’), Davies revealed his dramatic poise, moving effortlessly between the moods of the successive recitatives and arias. Vivaldi’s ‘Pianti, sospiri’ (‘Weeping, sighing’) drew forth the peaks of Davies’ technical armoury — his projection, pacing, ornamental invention and virtuosic elasticity quite simply took one’s breath away. However complicated the line, the voice remained unhindered and light.

In between the vocal treasures, Egarr offered readings of Frescobaldi’s ‘Se l’aura spira’ and ‘Capriccio sopra Ut re mi fa sol la’, and Handel’s Suite in D (HMV428), exploiting texture to create a remarkable ‘dynamic’ variety; the pianissimo passages were particularly beautiful. Expertly shaping harmonic sequences and cadences, Egarr assembled the architectural forms of Handel’s Suite like a master builder.

The encores — an athletic showcase from Partenope and the lovely Irish folksong, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ — demonstrated the performers’ unpretentious, genuine and infectious joy in the music and its performance. This recital celebrated Director John Gilhooly’s 10 years at Wigmore Hall. He could not have wished for a more glorious musical tribute.

Claire Seymour


Ferrari‘Voglio di vita uscir’
Kapsberger ‘Figlio dormi’
Frescobaldi Toccata Settima from Il secondo libro (solo harpsichord)
Frescobaldi ‘Se l’aura spira’
Ferrari ‘Queste pungenti spine’
Frescobaldi ‘Capriccio sopra Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la’ (solo harpsichord)
Cesti Selino’s Lament: ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ from L’Argia
Merula ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’
Porpora Cantata: ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
Handel Suite No.3 in D minor HWV428 (solo harpsichord)
Vivaldi Cantata: Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede