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Iestyn Davis and The English Concert [Photo by Sisi Burn]
14 Sep 2015

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davis and The English Concert [Photo by Sisi Burn]


It can caress a melody with sweetness or poignancy, sincerity or gravity; it can whip through fearsome runs and roulades with crystalline definition and focused tone; it can charm with a spell, terrify with rage, mesmerise with lyrical beauty, and trouble with introspection.

All of these qualities, and more — infinite variety of colour, expressive depth, airy transience, silky richness — were on display at the Wigmore Hall during this wonderful opening concert of the 2015-16 season in which Davies performed alongside the players of the English Concert and their director Harry Bicket, presenting a series of arias from several of Handel’s Italian operas, interspersed with instrumental items by Veracini, Porpora and Handel himself.

Partenope was the opera with which Handel re-opened the Royal Academy in 1729 and which is unusual in having two difficult parts written for castrato singers. Davies performed the role of Arsace, the reprobate who abandons his lover Rosmira to woo the Queen of Venice, Partenope (who has attracted the attention of two other rivals), at New York City Opera in 2010. ‘Sento amor’ (Love unrelenting), in which Arsace professes his divided loyalties, was notable for the ease with which Davies negotiated the high lying melody, moving lightly through the rapid runs, the phrases expanding naturally and flawlessly. ‘Ch’io parta’ (Must I depart) was poised and directly expressive; the falling octave motif registered the weight which burdens Arsace (‘Parto, ma senza cor’; I go, but leave with you my heart) and there was a tender diminuendo to a barely audible pianissimo in the final phrase before the resigned, melancholy da capo. In ‘Furibondo spira il vento’ (The furious blast), Arsace describes the tumultuous unrest in his heart as duty battles with love; Davies whirled through the semiquavers but never at the expense of musicality and communication, and was supported by some spirited violin playing. The three arias were preceded by the opera’s overture in which tempi were surprisingly but persuasively brisk, the triple time section particularly spirited, and the reedy directness of the oboes formed a pleasing counterpart to sweet-toned strings.

Throughout the evening, violinist Nadja Zwiener was a vigorous, confident and characterful leader. And, in Veracini’s Overture No.2 in F, Zwiener and director/harpsichordist Harry Bicket inspired each of the players of the English Concert to perform with a soloist’s presence yet to meld their individual voice into a fluent ‘whole’. There was some terrific coordination in the quicksilver piano passages for violins, and the full-toned oboes in the Sarabande complemented the even legato pairings of the strings alluringly. The Gigue was punchy and vivacious, and the final Menuetto anything but ‘stately’.

Two arias from Rinaldo followed. Rinaldo, based on Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberate, was the first opera which Handel wrote for London and was first performance at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1711. Davies sang the title role at Glyndebourne in 2014 and here reprised ‘Cara sposa’ (My dear betrothed) — the protagonist’s lament for the abducted Almirena — and ‘Venti turbini’ (Winds, gales), in which the hero swears to get revenge on the sorceress Armida. The former was the essence of simplicity: the voice entered part-way through the deliciously pulsing introductory violin melody, and Davies used his lower register most expressively, moving smoothly across octave leaps to convey Rinaldo’s despair and confusion. Concertante violin and bassoon added to the fury of the latter aria: Davies’ vocal flexibility was remarkable, as he made ‘music’ of the virtuosic runs, in perfect synchronisation with Alberto Grazzi’s expertly executed bassoon scamperings.

‘Pompe vane di morte! … Dove sei’ (The hollow splendour of death! … Where are you) opened the second half of the recital. Davies made his New York Met debut in Rodelinda, and reprised the role of Bertarido — who has been driven from his kingdom by Grimoaldo and is presumed dead, leaving behind his grieving wife, Rodelinda — at ENO in 2014. Here, Bertarido returns to be reunited with his wife: the recitative in which he reads the inscription on his ‘tomb’ was steady and strong of tone, but a marvellous change of mood was effected for the aria, ‘Dove sei’, in which Bertarido reveals his vulnerability and desire, longing for reunion with his wife.

The principal string players were given the chance to shine in Porpora’s Sinfonia da camera in G Op.2 No.1. There was much incisive, vivacious playing, and cellist Joseph Crouch displayed a particularly appealing tone and ear for nuanced phrasing. But it was a shame that the two violinists, Zwiener and Alice Evans, were not encouraged to turn to face the audience, for Evans was disadvantaged by the angling of her violin towards the rear, which resulted in an imbalance with Zwiener’s audacious and forthright playing.

Four arias from Orlando ­— which Davies will perform with Bicket and the English Concert at the Barbican in 2016­ — followed. I was particularly captivated by the expressive range of both voice and instrumentalists in the recitative ‘Ah Stigie larve’ (Ah Stygian monsters), in which the unhinged Orlando descends to the Underworld: furious string passagework contrasted dramatically with slow, perfectly tuned unison descents, Jørgen Skogmo’s theorbo adding greatly to the affekt. The repeating rondo melody of ‘Vaghe pupille’ (Lovely eyes) was similarly moving, Davies’ simple directness poignantly expressing Orlando’s insanity - he thinks that he is surrounded by mythical creatures and gods — which has resulted from the extreme jealousy that Angelica’s love for another has caused.

After the Passacaille from Rodelinda — in which the expressive, agile bass line provided gentle direction to the pervasive swing of the triple-time pulse, and which was notable for the simultaneous contrasts and blending of string and woodwind voices — the concert closed with two further arias from Orlando. ‘Fammi combattere’ (Go bid me fight) once again demonstrated the effortless fluidity with which Davies can despatch Handel’s coloratura demands: despite the virtuosic extravagances, the phrasing remained ‘musical’, the breathing controlled and even, the sound bright and clean. ‘Già per la man d’Orlando … Già cl’ebro mio ciglio’ (Now by Orlando’s hand … Drugged by this sweet liquid) was a well-chosen final item, in which the elegance and beauty of the vocal line, complemented by the unadorned directness of the strings was paradoxically both hypnotically soporific and compellingly engaging.

In Handel's Saul (which Iestyn Davies performed at Glyndebourne earlier this year), David’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies are numberless’ has little effect on the deluded, raging Saul; but Davies’ encore here was the epitome of musical solace and succour.

Speculations about the sentiments and ambitions of historical figures can only ever be just that: assumption and guesswork. But, it is pleasing to imagine that Handel would have been delighted and inspired to have had Iestyn Davies performing alongside castrati such as Senesino in the Royal Academy Company. Or, that, should he have been blessed with the gift of foresight, he would have relished the knowledge that Davies would be communicating his music so eloquently, persuasively and with such consummate skill to audiences three hundred years hence.

Claire Seymour

Performers and Programme:

The English Concert; Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Harry Bicket, director, harpsichord.

Handel: Overture and three arias from Partenope (‘Sento amor’, ‘Ch’io parte’, Furibondo spira il vento’); Veracini: Overture No.2 in F; Handel: Two arias from RInaldo (‘Cara sposo’, ‘Venti turbini’), Aria fromRodelinda (‘Pompe vane di morte! … Dove sei’); Porpora: Sinfonia da camera in G Op.2 No.1; Handel: Four arias from Orlando (‘Ah Stigie larve’, ‘Già latra Cerbero’, ‘Ma la furia’, ‘Vaghe pupille’), Passacaille from Radamisto, Two arias from Orlando (‘Fammi combattere’, ‘Già per la man d’Orlando … Già cl’ebro mio ciglio’)

Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 12th September 2015.

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