22 Jun 2020

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

At first glance their programme looked fairly conventional and predictable. And, as has been the case with all the other vocal recitals in the series that I’ve watched, it focused on the work of English composers, in this case from the 16th and 17th centuries - though Davies and Kenny had a few surprises up their sleeve.

But, it was with the Orpheus Britannicus, Henry Purcell, that we began. And, I can think of few who communicate the ‘essence’ of this music more movingly or perceptively than Davies. His plea for music, “Strike the viol, touch the lute, wake the harp” (from Come, ye songs of art away, the last of six birthday Odes written for Queen Mary), was a luring, liquidy invitation, the section repeats temptingly ornamented vocally and showcased by Kenny’s rhythmically taut but understated accompaniment. ‘By beauteous softness mixed with majesty’, from the first birthday Ode, offered more delicate, muted reflections, Kenny’s lute spinning a translucent spider’s web of interlocking voices and Davies’ countertenor gliding through the sequential repetitions and variants with soft smoothness. “He with such sweetness and justness reigns”: it was impossible to disagree. Davies is able to expand, colour and enrich his voice at the click of an invisible switch and to integrate such flourishes within what one would imagine to be an impossibly even line.

The duo segued into ‘Lord, what is man?’, reaching deeper into the metaphysical profundity of the seventeenth century. There was a wonderful introspective quality at the start, but as the tessitura and the emotional scope enlarged - the frequent vocal leaps were effortlessly elided - the music pushed towards the triple-time “O for a quill” acquiring an ever more optimistic tone, and finally blooming in the concluding Hallelujah section. I can imagine many of the current superb bunch of international countertenors rattling off the virtuosic runs with equal accuracy, but few who would do so in the service of the music with such insight, daring to hold back, to tempt and invite with Purcell’s bravura, rather than to dazzle. No wonder Kenny allowed herself the briefest of smiles at the close.

Kenny closed the Purcell sequence with her own arrangements of a brusque Rigadoon, a contemplative Farewell and a nonchalant ‘Lillibulero’, her playing always lucid and tender as she stroked and plucked her beautiful theorbo’s strings with care and understanding, nurturing Purcell’s music into being.

John Dowland, Thomas Campion and Robert Johnson followed. The strophic suavity of ‘Behold a wonder here’ and ‘The sypres curten of the night is spread’ beautifully illustrated the compelling unity of vocal directness and the affective tracery of the lute achieved by Dowland and Campion, respectively. Davies found particularly expressive nuance in Campion’s song, sustaining the melancholy introspection while simultaneously searching through turbulent emotions, as Kenny provided a delicate lace-work tapestry to support the singer’s sombre but silken reflections. Davies was no less musical and articulate in conveying the more declamatory rhetorical intimations of Dowland’s ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears’. Campion’s agile ‘I care not for these ladies’ found the performers in more nonchalant, but no less perceptive, mood. Kenny interleaved a Fantasia by Johnson, Dowland’s dynamic King’s Galliard and a brisk Corante by the intriguing ‘Mr Confess’.

Then came the unexpected. We shifted forwards 100 years. Mozart’s songs are not usually considered central to his oeuvre (somewhat surprising, perhaps, given his mastery of every genre of contemporary opera) but the lied ‘Abendempfindung’, composed in June 1787, less than a month after his father Leopold’s death, exemplifies the art of understated eloquence. The poet-speaker sings of his presentment of his inevitable death to the Petrarchian ‘Laura’, pleading with her to shed a tear on his grave which will be the “fairest pearl” which he takes to his heavenly refuge. Kenny’s French guitar lilted lightly through the simple arpeggio-accompaniment, while Davies expressed the depth of the poetic feeling without vocal or expressive mannerism. The candour was the performance’s power.

Finally came Schubert. ‘Heidenröslein’ was deliciously light and insouciant, with some wonderfully shaped rubatos and diminuendos. Quite honestly, I could listen to Davies’ mellifluous, subtly expressive performance of ‘Am Tage aller Seelen’ on a 24-hour loop. If you needed convincing that a countertenor can make a Schubert lied ‘speak’ here was your evidence. Kenny knew absolutely where and when to come to the fore and when to recede. By this point in the recital, I’d run out of superlatives, so Opera Today readers will have to imagine for themselves, or watch via the link below.

And, an encore to close: Handel’s ‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’ from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. As Davies explained, Milton’s text expresses the hope that, after seeming to have lived a terrible dream, when man awakens sweet music will breathe, and continue to breathe. So do we all, so do we all.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available here and via BBC Sounds until 22 July. Wigmore Hall's live stream of this concert was supported by Hamish Parker.

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute)

Purcell - ‘Strike the viol, touch the lute’ (from Come, ye sons of art, away Z323), ‘By beauteous softness mixed with majesty’ (from Now Does the Glorious Day Appear Z332), ‘Lord, what is man?’ (A Divine Hymn Z192), Rigadoon (arr. Elizabeth Kenny), ‘Sefauchi’s Farewell’ Z656 (arr. Elizabeth Kenny), ‘Lillibulero’ Z646; Dowland - ‘Behold a wonder here’; Campion - ‘The sypres curten of the night is spread’; Johnson - Fantasia; Dowland - ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears’, ‘The King of Denmark, his Galliard’; Campion - ‘I care not for these ladies’, Anon - ‘Mr Confess’ Coranto’; Mozart - ‘Abendempfindung’ K523; Schubert - ‘Heidenröslein’ D257, ‘ Am Tage aller Seelen’ D343.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22nd June 2020.