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Reviews

Iestyn Davies and <em>Fretwork</em> at Milton Court Concert Hall, 28th May 2018
29 May 2018

Iestyn Davies and Fretwork bring about a meeting of the baroque and the modern

‘Music for a while/Shall all your cares beguile’. Standing in shadow, encircled by the five players of the viol consort Fretwork, as the summer storm raged outside Milton Court Concert Hall countertenor Iestyn Davies offered mesmeric reassurance to the capacity audience during this intriguing meeting of the baroque and the modern.

Iestyn Davies and Fretwork at Milton Court Concert Hall, 28th May 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Chris Sorensen

 

All of Davies’ astute musicianship, technical expertise and expressive sensitivity was in evidence in Purcell’s song, compressed within four minutes of exquisite musical rhetoric. The twists and leaps of the ascending ground bass were articulated with lyricism as Davies let the descending melodic phrases fall silkily. His care with the text was both exemplary and thoughtful: a frisson on ‘beguile’ in the first phrase was transferred to the repetitions of ‘for all’ in the second. The snakes dropped from Alecto’s head as if slipping into cold water. The reiterated pledge of the closing phrase was dusted with a dash of piquancy by the upwards appoggiatura at the final cadence and by the suggestive lingering of the voice, the slightest vocal resonance persisting beyond the viols’ silence.

Interested readers can turn to my recent interview with Iestyn Davies for his (and my) thoughts about the musical threads that tether the baroque and minimalism together across three hundred years of changing musical forms and language, as well as for details about the origins and first performances of the works by Nyman included in this programme.

In her programme article, Alexandra Coghlan suggests that, although they share a ‘common vocabulary’, what distinguishes Bach and Purcell, say, from minimalists such as Glass and Nyman, is the use to which the composers put such means: that is, the repetitions of a Purcellian ground bass result in an intensification of emotion whereas the gyrations of minimalism serve ‘to strip away emotional as well as musical landmarks, to nullify, to hypnotise’.

I think that in some contexts this is probably true. But, this concert suggested that a more nuanced comparative relationship and dialogue is at work: that it is ‘time’, or rather the dialectic between timelessness and movement, which is at the core of both baroque and minimalist idioms, but that composers from these respective eras explore and articulate concepts of rest and unrest, stillness and progress, in different ways. Emotion, and its intensification, is present in both idioms, but the arousal of such emotion is achieved by contrasting methods of manipulating repetitive structures - whether structural, harmonic or motivic - as these features engage with other musical elements.

Or, as Iestyn Davies himself put it, with more directness, both Purcell and Nyman seem to contrive to deliberately make us aware of the passing of time. The works performed here certainly seemed to exemplify the way that Purcell’s emotional intensification and rhetorical ‘progression’ is effected by what I previously described as ‘ever more complex, nuanced elaboration, and more radical re-interpretation of harmonic structures and inferences’, while Nyman’s music acquires accumulating intensity, and restlessness, through amendments - sometimes unexpected - to the ‘episodic reiterations’ which results in forward movement of a sometimes physically shuddering nature.

The programme was framed by two works by Nyman for countertenor and viols. The seven short metaphysical epigrams, ‘To Music’, by Robert Herrick which Nyman sets in the form of a continuous unfolding in No Time in Eternity, immediately foreground the seventeenth-century representation of music as something active, with the power to effect varied change - by turns redemptive and destructive, enchanting and decadent. ‘Begin to charm’ is the initial, repeated cry, as the poet calls upon Music to first ‘melt me into tears’, then ‘make my spirits frantic’ and finally ‘make me smooth as balm and oil again’. Davies instantly cast an Orphic spell. The purity of his countertenor as he reiterated the opening word, ‘Begin’, set against the quiet, dark graininess of the viols’ gently propelling rhythmic gesture, and the intensification of chromatic false relations, beautifully embodied the sensual impact of Herrick’s ‘silvery strain’.

And aptly too, for, as the title implies, Herrick is concerned with the human, the ‘body’, rather than with the ethereal: ‘By hours we all live here;/ In Heaven is known/ No spring of time, or time’s succession.’ Herrick’s text emphasises the seventeenth-century concern with the unequal relationship between the music of the world and the music of the spheres on which it is based. The cold sparsity of the viol textures and voice-viol unisons in ‘Things Mortal Still Mutable’ emphasised the dangers that uncertainty and change bring to man, who is set on ‘icy pavements’, as well as the inevitable progression of musical phrase upon musical phrase. I was struck, too, by the clarity and shapeliness of Nyman’s melodic definition in ‘The Definition of Beauty’ - ‘Beauty no other thing is than a beam/Flashed out between the middle and extreme.’ - and by Davies’ diction and eloquence here. The epigrammatic fragment conjured in my mind the text-setting of Benjamin Britten, particularly the early works such as Hymn to St Cecilia, another poetic mediation on the nature of music and its power: ‘Translated Daughter, come down and startle/Composing mortals with immortal fire.’

Nyman’s Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence - written for and first performed by Fretwork and James Bowman - drew forth contrasting but complementary skills from Davies and Fretwork. Sustained high declamatory utterances, relentless octave leaps, melismatic unpredictability, excursions into the singer’s lowest register which emphasise Inanna’s princely status - ‘He has given me lordship’: all these musical elements captured the power-hungry egoism of the Sumerian Queen, the ancient goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation and war - and all were effortless despatched by Davies. Fretwork added drama to the rhetorical pronunciations of identity and self-belief: shimmering upper viols and brusque pizzicato sweeps; folk-like circulatory gestures which whipped up energy in the middle voices; driving repeated groups of semi-quavers; unison crystallisations of the self-belief confirmed by forceful repetitions, ‘is mine’.

In two songs ‘If’ and ‘Why’, written by Nyman to texts by Roger Pulvers for inclusion in director Seiya Araki’s 1995 animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank, even these supreme musicians could not quite overcome the banality of Pulvers’ texts which express a child-like hope - ‘I’d blink my eyes/And wave my arms./I’d wish a wish to stop all harm’ - but whose anaphoric pleas (‘Tell me why, somebody … Why people can not love./ Why people hate all day and night/ […] Why adults fight over God/Why adults fight over colour/ Why adults go to war.’) have the ring of a collective classroom poetry project. That said, the looseness of the musicians’ crafting of Nyman’s ostinatos, which slip between time signatures and across varied phrase lengths, added some thought-provoking depth to the general consonant sweetness.

More interesting was Nyman’s Music after a while for viol consort, receiving its world premiere, for it offered a direct dialogue between present and past. Nyman begins with a sort of retrograde inversion variant on Purcell’s ground, the semitone falling rather than rising, before leaping up a fourth (not a fifth), and the distortions are further exacerbated by the irregularity of the rhythmic values in contrast to Purcell’s steady progression. The result is an increased frustration, as the motif seems to fight against itself rather than simply accumulate intensity as it moves forward. Gradually, the rhythmic figuration and syncopated tension increase, and the drama derived from growing the harmonic complexity and revolving deep bass line was enhanced by the delicious airiness of the viol players’ bow strokes which seemed to fly and float across the strings. Purcell’s ground, in its original form, increasingly made its presence felt, though it had to fight through chromatic obstacles and fast viol figures in the upper voices to sustain itself, and such dialogues resulted in rhythmic disjunctions which were eventually subdued into unisons and steadiness of pulse. This was a thrilling conversation between a ghostly voice and a present scribe.

However, the highlight of the concert was, inevitably perhaps, the beauty of Davies’ countertenor - for which I don’t really have the words, which is probably as it should be. Purcell’s ‘An Evening Hymn’ had closed the first part of the recital with hypnotic reverie. The encore was ‘O Solitude’, the 28 ground-bass repetitions of which - of infinite expressive variety, imaginative re-interpretation, formal flexibility - surely issue a challenge to any composer, baroque or minimalist. It’s hard, too, to imagine a text - Antoine Girard Saint-Amand’s ‘O que j’ayme la solitude!’, translated by Purcell’s contemporary, Katherine Philip - more diametrically opposed to the self-aggrandising oratory of the Sumerian warrior-Queen which had preceded it. Davies, accompanied initially by lute-mimicking pizzicatos then by graceful viol interweaving, was Orpheus Britannicus indeed.

Claire Seymour

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby)

Michael Nyman - No Time in Eternity; Purcell - Two Fantazias in four parts, ‘Music for a While’; Nyman - Music after a while; Purcell - ‘An Evening Hymn’; Nyman - Balancing the Books, The Diary of Anne Frank (‘If’, ‘Why’); Purcell - Fantazy in four parts and Fantazy upon one note (1680); Nyman - Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Monday 28th May 2018.

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