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Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
22 May 2012

History Repeating

Iestyn Davies’ Wigmore Hall recital, ‘History Repeating’, may have explored various composers’ engagement with, and reinterpretation and reinvigoration of, music of the past, but Davies himself is very much the countertenor of the moment, and undoubtedly an exciting and fulfilling future lies ahead.

History Repeating

Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 7th May 2012.

Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]


The capacity audience at the Wigmore Hall was expectant, alert and palpably animated as they awaited the opening item: three of Benjamin Britten’s characterful if idiosyncratic realisations of Henry Purcell. From the early 1940s, Britten and Pears had introduced these realisations into their recital programmes; Britten would later declare that he had not appreciated “before I first met Purcell, that words could be set with such ingenuity, with such colour”. These realisations are energetic and restless, if not always idiomatic. But Davies made them sound natural and fluent, the frequent sparseness of Britten’s textures resulting in no loss of expressivity as Davies’ easy, fluid declamation of the text, particularly in the recitative-like passages, delineated the emotional situation directly and truthfully. ‘In the Black Dungeon of Despair’ was particularly transfixing, the chromatic declamations wonderfully shaped, while ‘Sweeter Them Roses’ demonstrated the countertenor’s deftness and agility. Overall it was the small details that were made to tell so affectingly: such as the subtle diminuendo on the closing ‘Hallelujah’ of ‘Lord, what is man’, or the poignant dissonances which draw out the dark sensuality of ‘Sweeter than roses’.

Recently Davies gave the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Four Traditional Songs — comprising settings of ‘A brisk young lad’, ‘Searching for lambs’, ‘The cruel mother’ and ‘The bitter withy’ — a work which was jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Wigmore Hall. Muhly perfectly understands the need to allow space for the text to speak in these folk ballad arrangements, and his minimalist style creates an appropriately reflective, introverted, and at times mysterious, ambience. He also appreciates the wide range of register and colour which Davies’ voice can encompass — from a muscular, strong lower voice to a penetrating yet poignantly sweet high range — and the way that this can be used in the service of story-telling.

Davies knows how to spin an intimate narrative, almost like a confession, drawing the audience ever closer; by the final song the audience was collectively holding its breath, hardly daring to exhale and break the spell. The precision and control were deceptively effortless: it takes enormous skill and discipline to shape such expansive phrases, colouring individual words and subtly altering the dynamics, while maintaining narrative continuity. The vocal line was penetrating but never shrill; incisive and haunting, and at times unsettling, but always beautiful and warm. Pianist Malcolm Martineau complemented the voice economically but expressively - Muhly has described the piano accompaniment as "highly stylized but understated". Indeed, these songs may be sparse but they are also deeply eloquent and touching.

Michael Tippett did not allow Britten a monopoly of song arrangements and editions of early music, including Purcell, and Tippett’s Songs for Ariel which closed the first half of the recital, reveal his own Purcellian inheritance. In ‘Come into these yellow sands’ and ‘Full fathom five’, pianist and countertenor made much of the evolving counterpoint which energises Tippett’s idiom. A bright joyful timbre characterised ‘Where the bee sucks’, Davies nonchalantly evoking Ariel’s freedom of spirit and blissful release.

The second half commenced in more reflective, sombre fashion with Britten’s realisations of J.S. Bach’s Five Spiritual Songs. Here the elegance of Davies’ phrasing, as well as his full rich tone, conveyed both the disturbing and consoling moments in the texts with equal affective power. Again, it was the remarkable yet inconspicuous attention to small nuances which proved so moving: the careful placement of the words, ‘Es ist gnug, Herr’ in ‘Liebster Herr Jesus’, each isolated by the most miniscule of separations, was spine-chilling.

Davies found himself in unfamiliar countertenor territory for the next item, Schubert’s lied, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’. In fact, his timbre gave a song where voice type and manner are innately provocative, an added piquancy. For, the singer must embody two differently gendered roles: first, a maiden who pleas for death to pass her by, and then Death himself, who reassures that it is rest not terror that he brings. The shift from the maiden’s high register to Death’s lower realms is further complicated by the countertenor timbre — one might describe the effect as a serious version of more familiar comic, en travesti subversions. Davies’ lower range is muscular, even tenorial, which made the sepulchral descent through a D Minor scale and the chilly repeated Ds to which Death’s melody repeatedly returns, deadening and bleak. Although there was little of the emotive vocal strain at the close that is inevitable when the song is sung by a woman, Davies was able to convincingly convey both the agitation of the maiden in the first stanza and Death’s knelling reply, making the intermingling of personae even more unsettling. Martineau’s funereal piano prelude was transformed into a hymn-like postlude, further highlighting the ambiguities of the text.

Brahms’ Fünf Gesänge Op.72 is the last of four sets of songs composed during 1875-77. The first song, ‘Alte Liebe’, has a text by Candidus which speaks of the memories of young love — sentiments which undoubtedly resonated personally for Brahms. Martineau proved himself a sensitive and intelligent accompanist in these songs, in which the vocal line and accompaniment textures are intricately interwoven. Davies’ slow vocal phrases unfolded expressively over Martineau’s gentle, low register arpeggios, but harmonic intensification rapidly injected restless passion, before subsiding to a resigned close, with falling fifths resounding emptily in the piano accompaniment.

Translated as ‘Invincible’, ‘Unüberwindlich’, the fifth of the Op.72 set, is Goethe's drinking song, comparing women to wine. Both pianist and singer displayed a sharp wit and light spirit, making much of the humorous word-painting and ironic musical quotation (a motif from Domenico Scarlatti's harpsichord Sonata in D (Longo 214). The performers enjoyed the drawn out octaves between the voice and piano which mark the several oaths sworn during the song, and the conclusion was suitably uproarious.

Herbert Howells, nostalgic song, O My Deir Hert, was performed with particular sweetness, Davies’ luminous tone aptly conveying the faith and passion of the Luther-inspired text.

During his last months in America in the mid-1940s, Britten assuaged his homesickness by producing many arrangements of folk songs of the British Isles, which he and Pears performed as encores. Britten noted at the time that they created a “’wow’ wherever they have been performed so far!”, and Davies kept up this tradition! The relaxed joyfulness of ‘That yongë child’ was followed by an exquisitely crafted rendering of ‘The Ash Grove’, the vocal melody enhanced by Martineau’s delicate accompaniment, commencing high above the voice, then sinking deep below before rising to ethereal heights once again for the close. ‘Oliver Cromwell’, a setting of a traditional Suffolk nursery rhyme, places a comically malicious text over a smirking piano accompaniment, in a vibrant folk style. The final lines are: “If you want any more, you can sing it yourself, Hee-haw, sing it yourself.” The audience undoubtedly wanted much more, but Davies’ artistry rendered any other contributions unthinkable!

Davies seems to have it all. His tone is pure and centred, unfailingly beautiful across all registers, never ceasing to make an expressive or dramatic impact. Intonation is near perfect, technical demands are effortlessly despatched, and Davies communicates directly with his audience, confident and direct in a range of styles and forms. There is no undue fussiness but subtle details are perceived, considered and strikingly conveyed. Such innate musicality and unassuming mastery are rare, and to be treasured; as are the apparent joy and delight both experienced and shared — which the exultant Wigmore Hall clientele clearly understood.

Claire Seymour


Henry Purcell: ‘Lord, what is man’ (realised by Britten); ‘In the black, dismal dungeon of despair’; ‘Sweeter than roses’
Nico Muhly: Four Traditional Songs (UK premiere)
Michael Tippett: Songs for Ariel
J.S. Bach: Five Spiritual Songs (Geistliche Lieder)
Franz Schubert: ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
Johannes Brahms: ‘Alte Liebe’; ‘Unüberwindlich’
Herbert Howells: ‘O my deir hert’
Benjamin Britten: ‘That yongë child’; ‘The ash grove’; ‘Oliver Cromwell’

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