What a sad fate is mine; Gentle shepherds, you that know; If pray’rs and tears
Suite in D minor
As on his death-bed gasping Strephon lay; The Queen’s Epicedium
Toccata in E minor
Nine German Arias [interspersed with Telemann Fantasia in G for solo violin and Weiss Prelude and Fantasie for lute]
Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Ensemble Guadagni [Matthew Truscott (violin), Jonathan Manson (cello), David Miller (theorbo & lute) & Robert Howarth (harpsichord)]
Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi
Reviewed: 6 June, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
A rarefied programme of English and German music, with not a speck of levity during its two-hour length, not one hint of appeasement towards the unmusical or the interests of ‘yoof’ (though the singer is in his late-twenties and the violinist looked all of nineteen). But I jest – in truth, you can always depend upon Wigmore Hall to remind you of what music is supposed to be, even when it seems that all you hear about is the dreadful wobbling vibrato of yet another overnight sensation!
Iestyn Davies is about as near as real musicians can come to being an overnight sensation, since his rise to fame has been so swift, yet it has also been carefully managed as this debut solo recital showed. Purcell and Blow dominated the first half, both composers in elegiac, mournful mood. In its intensity and unrelenting seriousness, the choice of repertoire itself showed tremendous confidence. “What a sad fate is mine” established both the mood and the musical excellence of the evening, Purcell’s flowing lines sung with bravura and grace. “Gentle Shepherds, you that know” is one of Purcell’s greatest works, showing most clearly what Playford described as his “peculiar Genius to express the energy of English words”. Davies and Ensemble Guadagni conveyed its unusual onomatopoeic qualities, phrases such as “will teach you how to moan” and “Muses, bring your roses hither” ideally crisp in diction, the viola da gamba part energetically supporting the voice.
John Blow’s music is somewhat neglected compared to that of Purcell, unjustly in the case of “The Queen’s Epicedium” which provides a singer with challenges of the sort that Davies relishes – it can’t be easy to produce the kind of unwaveringly plaintive tone required for lines like “The Queen of Arcadie is gone!” whilst giving attention to the inevitable flourishes. Blow was also represented by the delightful Suite in D, one of the harpsichord Lessons he published in 1698, for which Robert Howarth provided an erudite yet entertaining introduction before playing it with loving skill. Buxtehude’s “Jubilate Domino” brought the first half to a cheerful conclusion, the difficult figures imitating brass instruments flung out as though they presented no challenge at all.
Handel’s “Nine German Arias” was the major work in the second half, neatly interspersed with Telemann’s Fantasia in G for solo violin and Weiss’s Prelude and Fantasie for Lute marvellously played by Matthew Truscott and David Miller respectively.
Handel’s “Arias” were composed to texts by Brockes from his collection “Earthly delight in God, consisting of physical and moral poems” which just about sums up their style, alternating between the serene and contemplative in ‘Künft’ger Zeiten eitler Kummer’ and the lively ‘Flammende Rose.’ They can seem a little unvaried, however, and Davies was at his best in the more earthy arias such as ‘Die ihr aus dunklen Grüften’ with its almost dogged bass line – yet finding any fault with this work is to Handelians as criticising the “Vier ernste Gesänge” is for Brahms lovers.
Purcell’s “Evening Hymn” was the appropriate encore, taken more slowly than I have ever heard it, and demonstrating once more the virtuosity not only of the singer but the instrumentalists. This was also Iestyn Davies’s first concert-collaboration with the four virtuosos who make up Ensemble Guadagni (named for the great castrato who created the role of Orfeo in Gluck’s opera). It is safe to assume that audiences will be able to enjoy many more concerts of the same musical excellence with these collaborative artists.