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Iestyn Davies and Fretwork perform Purcell and Nyman at Milton Court Theatre, 28th May 2018
22 May 2018

No Time in Eternity: Iestyn Davies discusses Purcell and Nyman

Revolution, repetition, rhetoric. On my way to meet countertenor Iestyn Davies, I ponder if these are the elements that might form connecting threads between the music of Henry Purcell and Michael Nyman, whose works will be brought together later this month when Davies joins the viol consort Fretwork for a thought-provoking recital at Milton Court Concert Hall.

Iestyn Davies and Fretwork perform Purcell and Nyman at Milton Court Theatre, 28th May 2018

An interview with Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve


In fact, Purcell and Nyman are not ‘musical strangers’. Nyman’s soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draftsman’s Contract had drawn on Purcellian grounds - the composer is credited on the album as ‘music consultant’ - and the original Michael Nyman Band, formed in 1976, comprised instruments old and new: rebecs, sackbuts and shawms were heard alongside a banjo, electric bass and saxophone.

The Milton Court concert programme was curated by Fretwork’s Richard Boothby, Iestyn Davies explains, and includesThe Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and Her Omnipotence (1992) , written for and first performed by Fretwork and James Bowman. The text - a translation of an ancient Near-Eastern hymn - is characterised by repetitions of the Sumerian Queen of Heaven’s sweeping exaltations of self-praise. The more recent No Time in Eternity - settings of seven short poems by the 17th-century metaphysical poet, Robert Herrick - was commissioned in 2014 by another viol consort, Ensemble Céladon, and countertenor Paulin Bündgen, and first performed by them in 2016.

There are further reflections on the musical and historical past in Nyman’s Balancing the Books, commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death and loosely based on ideas drawn from the 48 Preludes and Fugues, and in the songs ‘If’ and ‘Why’, written to texts by Roger Pulvers and for inclusion in director Seiya Araki’s animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank (1995). Alongside Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ and several of the composer’s fantasias for viol, a work which intimates a direct ‘conversation’ between past and present, Nyman’s Music after a While, completes the programme.

Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata have previously woven the baroque, folk and jazz into a seamless tapestry; can minimalism be interlaced into the mix? I ask Iestyn Davies what forms and methods might create dialogue between the music of Purcell and Nyman? He remarks the similarity between the lucidity of the composers’ approaches to the setting of the English language, and also the repetitive structures that provide both architectural foundations and developmental impetus; both composers seem to contrive to deliberately make us aware of the passing of time. Certainly, I am often struck by the paradoxical presence of both somewhat rarefied gravity and accumulating rhetorical passion in the works of both composers, but I wonder if the ‘forward movement’ to which Iestyn refers is created by rather different means: that is, while Purcell’s repetitions are characterised by ever more complex, nuanced elaboration, and more radical re-interpretation of harmonic structures and inferences, Nyman effects forward ‘shifts’ by amending episodic reiterations - or, as Iestyn puts it, we are often ‘jolted’ by unanticipated interruptions to the revolving patterns.

I heard Iestyn Davies and Fretwork perform at Kings Place in December 2015 when I found the textural and timbral interplay of the viol consort and the countertenor voice compelling. The latter’s purity and limpidity and the gentle grain and refinement of the instrumental ensemble make interesting bedfellows. I ask Iestyn what he finds stimulating and challenging about performing with Fretwork - does one try to become the sixth voice in the viol consort? - and he surprises me with a detailed, sensitive and informed description of the contrast between the articulation, and thus the emphasis and phrasing, that results from the performance technique and practicalities of playing the viol. And, he notes the way this can surprise a performer who might more frequently perform a particular song with lute or string accompaniment. To exemplify, he hums the first few notes of the ground bass of Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’ and illustrates - gesturally and vocally - the way in which the viol-player’s bow-hold results in a ‘pushed’ rather than ‘pulled’ stroke, and so shapes the way the ground’s rising progressions are crafted and accented. He is no less precise and discerning when responding to my query whether performing with stringed-instrument accompaniments presents particular tuning problems to singers, explaining with astuteness and clarity the way in which a singer perceives the sung sound from both within and without, and the subsequent significance that the size and acoustic nature of the performing environment can have. He refers to a recent performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice to illustrate some of the challenges, noting that the delicacy of the strings’ texture in the quiet passage which follows ‘Che farò’ can make the harmony difficult to discern, and drawing a parallel with the shifting interplay of the viol voices within the consort - when performing at the less familiar pitch of A=430, for example.

Reflecting on repertoire, I note that the countertenor’s lot is essentially one of ‘old and new’ with a couple of centuries missing in between, but Iestyn reminds me that in June he will perform a programme of Purcell, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Quilter with soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall (drawing on their 2017 album, Lost is My Quiet ). And, then there is Schubert, specifically Die schöne Müllerin which I heard the countertenor perform at Middle Temple Hall with pianist Julius Drake in July last year. A recording of Florean Boesch singing a Schubert lied and a telephone call from Drake stirred Iestyn’s initial interest: after further consideration and investigation, Die schöne Müllerin - with a less broad registral range than other of Schubert’s cycles and a prevailingly ‘youthful’ spirit - seemed ‘do-able’. Though evidently very satisfied with the performance at Temple - and justifiably so; not only did both musicians’ technical and expressive performances provide much to admire, I was impressed too by the ‘imaginative psychological portrait that Davies and Drake created, and by the convincing coherence of the narrative arc of the sequence’ - Iestyn seems in no hurry to repeat the experience!

Instead, in July he returns to Glyndebourne to reprise his role as David in Barrie Kosky’s production of Handel’s Saul; he speaks eagerly about revisiting some of the dramatic challenges which Kosky poses and looks forward to the freshness that an entirely new cast will bring to the production. Kosky’s Saul was first seen in 2015, the year that also saw Iestyn treading the theatrical boards alongside Mark Rylance in Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, which originated at the Globe Theatre and subsequently transferred to the West End, and then to Broadway in 2017. Iestyn seems unbothered by the travel demands which modern-day singers faced, and looks forward to returning to New York in November this year - where last autumn he appeared at the Met in Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel (seen at the ROH in April 2017) - to perform the role of Terry Rutland in Nico Muhly’s Marnie.

When I ask what is on his repertoire/role ‘wish-list’, apart from observing that Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is infinitely rewarding, Iestyn is pragmatic, open-minded and positive - he describes himself as a ‘fatalist’. He explains that the path to ‘star’ status was neither unclouded nor straight: he had been a ‘good’ treble at St John’s College Cambridge, but at eighteen it was not necessarily evident that he would be a ‘good countertenor’. Both Wells Cathedral - where he sang each Tuesday during his final year at school, and then as a full-time choral scholar during his gap year before university - and the London conservatoires, to which he applied post Cambridge Archaeology studies, did not instantly open their doors. Moreover, he has a healthily rational and reasonable attitude to decisions made and past triumphs and failures: one can’t have regrets. If he had studied at Eton, as his mother had wished, and not attended the school at which she was a deputy head, his experiences would have been ‘different’, but would they necessarily have been ‘better’ or the outcome more advantageous?

Iestyn speaks sensitively and intelligently, too, about the identification of the singer with their voice - by singers themselves and listeners alike. He remarks that while he wants to sing as long as he is able to perform at the highest level, when the time comes to stop there will be other things in life: one is not born a singer, and alongside performing there is simply being a ‘human being’ too. I find his observations about this merging of voice and identity fascinating, and agree that it is the ‘uniqueness’ of the singer’s sound which is so captivating; while there are some instrumentalists whose tone is instantly recognisable, the singing voice presents not just an interpretation of a particular piece of music, rather it is the visceral embodiment of it - and it can feel as if it is literally touching the heart. Iestyn remarks that this is as true of singers who have had a classical training, and those in other genres who have not, and notes that the speaking voice does not exert the same mesmeric sway.

I’ve no doubt, though, that on 28th May at Milton Court Concert Hall, Iestyn Davies and Fretwork will entrance us once more.

Claire Seymour

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