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Iestyn Davies and James Baillieu [Photo by Clive Barda]
06 Dec 2015

Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton and James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall

This performance by countertenor Iestyn Davies and tenor Allan Clayton was a stirring celebration of the diversity and continuity that characterises vocal settings of English texts by English and American composers, past and present. Imaginatively and intelligently devised by pianist James Baillieu, the programme demonstrated the affective power of music ranging from the simplest to the most sophisticated forms of vocal expression, and encompassed art-song, folk-song, realisations, quasi-operatic mini-drama and spiritual meditation.

Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton and James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies and James Baillieu [Photo by Clive Barda]


Benjamin Britten’s first Canticle, My beloved is mine, combines theatrical impact with divine reflection. When it was premiered in November 1947 by Britten and Peter Pears at a memorial concert for Dick Sheppard, the founder of the Peace Pledge Union, the composer described the ‘canticle’ as a ‘new invention in a sense although … [it is] modelled on the Purcell Divine Hymns’. Clayton and Baillie emphasised the concentration of My beloved is mine, the text of which, by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), presents a quasi-erotic meditation on a single line from the Song of Solomon. There was a growing sense of spiritual unity and fulfilment, as the performers moved through the sections. ‘[L]ike two little divided brooks’, voice and piano alternated in the opening part, the piano’s ritornello coolly countering the fullness of the tenor’s line, before the two combined and cohered, blossoming warmly in the first statement refrain, ‘So I my best beloved’s am./ So he is mine!’ It was the recurring refrain which articulated the emotional trajectory of the work. After the elaborate celebration, ‘We both became entire’, it was a poised, unaccompanied statement of certainty; after the dramatic insistences of the following episode — with its wide ranging, highly melismatic recitative — it was powerfully assertive. The harmonic ambiguities of the complexly imitative third section, culminated in a slower, more reverential declaration, Clayton’s lower register conveying introspection. The closing part was beautifully still and quiet, creating a mood of subdued veneration. As the voice rose, countered by the fall of the piano to low realms, it was as if the protagonist’s ecstatic faith in his Creator encompassed the world entire.

James Baillieu and Allan Clayton at Wigmore Hall 4 Dec 15 (c) Clive Barda.jpgAllan Clayton and James Baillieu

Abraham and Isaac , Britten’s Canticle II, is more obviously dramatic and sets a scene from the Chester Miracle play. The two voices take the roles of father and son, and as Clayton and Davies enacted the strife between secular and spiritual loyalties which Abraham endures, they moved with fluency between the movements, creating a dramatic persuasiveness which partly mitigated our possible unease at the father’s resolution to offer up his child in obedience to an exacting deity. Yet, some of the most powerful moments come when the two voices combine in supple rhythmic unison to declaim the words of God. The contrasting vocal timbres of Davies and Clayton blended with potency and the singers added further weight to the awe which the Father inspires by turning their backs upon the audience during God’s opening demand for sacrifice. Baillie’s accompaniment intensified the highly wrought drama: for example, the running cadential motif that closed Abraham’s acknowledgement of his duty, ‘Ah! Isaac, Isaac, I must kill thee!’, evoked a tone of mocking inevitability. Similarly, Baillie’s staccato accompaniment to Isaac’s declaration of trust, ‘Father, I am all ready/ To do your bidding most meekly’, was painfully ironic, and the darkening of the tenor’s response, ‘Oh! My heart will break in three’, tightened the screw still further. Davies communicated Isaac’s trusting innocence with heart-wringing clarity; but the unsettling self-composure displayed by Isaac in the unaccompanied question, ‘Is it God’s will I shall be slain?’ was soothed by the blessing he offers his father, Baillie’s spacious chords and the warmth, then tenderness (‘Come hither, my child, thou art so sweet’), of Clayton’s reply conveying some consolation. Though the darkness could never be absolutely expunged, after the savagery of Baillie’s depiction of the moments leading towards the sacrificial surrender of the child to God the ‘Envoi’ drifted heavenwards in peaceful consummation.

In the second half of the programme, Clayton offered us more Britten — the folksong arrangements —showing, after the intricate, strenuous musical and dramatic dialectics of the Canticles, that simplicity can be just as affecting. In particular, ‘I wonder as I wander’ was delivered with a beguiling directness, while ‘Salley in our Alley’ and ‘Oliver Cromwell’ allowed Clayton to indulge his playful showmanship.

There were many pairings and counter-balances in this programme. Thus Davies, too, presented a series of traditional songs: American composer Nico Muhly’s ‘Four Traditional Songs’ of 2011. The sweetness of Davies’ countertenor and the poised elegance of his phrasing added much to the articulateness of these songs. The quirky rhythmic displacements and asymmetries of ‘A brisk young lad’ and ‘Searching for lambs’ were engaging. ‘The cruel mother’ allowed Davies to demonstrate his thoughtful approach to text: the repeating line ‘All alone and a loney’ acquired ever more poignancy as the tale of despair, matricide and spiritual banishment unfolded. Baillie’s entry, in the second verse of this song, was characteristic of the pianist’s admirable approach throughout the evening: his contributions stirred an imaginative response — the dramatic dissonant punctuations of the closing verse chillingly conjured the ‘fire beyond Hell’s gate’ where the mother will ‘burn both early and late’ — but they never drew undue attention.

There was new work too, as Mulhy’s Lorne ys my liking, dedicated to Clayton and Davies, was given its world premiere. A setting of a Chester miracle play, it — in the words of Mulhy — ‘imagines Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobi (the sister of the virgin) and Mary Salome (the mother of James and John) at Christ’s tomb. There thy weep, and are confronted by two angels with the faces of children’. A debt to Britten is evident, and the frequent close harmonies created some lovely vocal colours, particularly in the opening section for Mary Magdalene and in the Angelus Primus, recalling the second Canticle. There is much dramatic detail and contrast too: Maria Jacobi’s devotional cry, ‘Mightie God omnipotent’, was given stature and resonance by the piano’s low meandering; and Baillie’s jagged interruptions of Marie Salome’s exclamations were a violent confirmation of her distress. But, the parts did not quite add up to a coherent ‘whole’; and, after the ‘cleansing’ balm of Mary Magdalene’s final words of acceptance, the six-hand piano postlude which saw Davies and Clayton join Baillie at the keyboard seemed a misjudgement.

At the start of his career, Thomas Adès’ precocity was often compared to the gifted facility of the young Britten, and the ‘The Lover in Winter’, written when Adès was just eighteen, intriguingly complemented My beloved is mine, telling as it does of a love frozen but not destroyed by the chilling frosts which shrivel the external world; a love whose fires flame once more in the final song of fulfilment. Davies’ control was evident in the opening song, which ranges high and low, and the absence of vibrato imbued the narrative with a spiritual air. There was a penetrating precision to the countertenor’s account of the subdued stirrings of the natural world, intimated by energetic piano flourishes and shifts, in the second song, and the isolation of the vocal line culminated in the numbed monotone which opens the third song, ‘Modo frigescit quidquid est’ (Soon all that exists grows cold). Following such numbness, the incantatory splendour of the final song, which Davies delivered with astonishing direction and focus, was almost overwhelmingly intense declaration of passion.

Clayton gave an engaging account of Samuel Barber’s ‘Three Songs’ Op.10, which were unfamiliar to me. James Joyce’s three poems seem to have inspired Barber's easy lyricism and Clayton’s committed delivery revealed Barber as a natural song-writer. After the aural evocations of the natural world in ‘Rain has fallen’, ‘Sleep now’ — which brought to mind Britten’s many musical depictions of sleep and dreams — began with beautifully settled repose. But, the rhetorical interruption of the ‘voice of winter’ brought unrest to the middle stanza, before Clayton’s delicate pianissimo returned us to slumber and peace. The tenor’s vocal power was harnessed to good effect in ‘I hear an army’ which concluded with the pained appeal, ‘My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?’

In his introductory essay to the published score of Peter Grimes, Britten declared his oft-quoted ambition to create vocal music which ‘transform[s] the natural intonation and rhythms of everyday speech into memorable musical phrases (as with Purcell), but in more stylized music’. On this occasion, the spirit of Purcell was present from first to last, not least because the programme was framed by realisations of his music by Britten, Tippett and Adès. Davies took ‘Music for a while’ at a fairly swift pace, and here and in ‘Sweeter than roses’ his gracefully flowing line was thoughtfully complemented by Baillie. Adès’ ‘Full fathom five’ opened with forceful clarion chords on the piano, demanding our attention and initiating the voice’s confident, expansive declarations. Britten, fittingly, had the last word, his arrangements of Purcell’s ‘Lost is my quiet for ever’ and ‘Sound the trumpet’ bringing both singers back to the platform and allowing us to enjoy the relaxed intertwining of the two voices.

And there things could have closed, perfectly, with the trumpet calling us ‘To celebrate the glory of this day’ — just as we had all rejoiced in this wonderful exploration of English settings which balanced the familiar with the fresh, the theatrical with the contemplative, the challenging with the artless. But, an encore of ‘The Deaf Woman’s Courtship’ initiated a role reversal: Clayton and Davies enjoyed the joke as they sang falsetto and in full voice respectively, but — while appreciated by the amused audience — I found the levity disturbed the blend of earnestness and joy which had made this such a revelatory occasion.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Allan Clayton, tenor; James Baillieu, piano

Purcell: ‘Music for a while’ Z583 (arr. Tippett), ‘Sweeter than roses’ Z585 (arr. Britten), ‘Full fathom five Z631’ (arr. Adès); Britten: Canticle I — My beloved is mine Op.40; Adès: ‘The Lover in Winter’; Britten: Canticle II — Abraham and Isaac Op.51; Muhly: Lorne ys my likinge (world première); Barber: ‘3 Songs’ (James Joyce) Op.10; Muhly: ‘Four Traditional Songs’; (Britten: ‘Sally in our Alley’, ‘The Plough Boy’, ‘I wonder as I wander’, ‘Oliver Cromwell’; Purcell: ‘Lost is my quiet forever’ Z502 (arr. Britten), ‘Sound the trumpet’ Z323 (arr. Britten)

Wigmore Hall, London. Friday, 4th December 2015.

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