Iestyn Davies & Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall

Stuart MacRae
The Lif of this World
Le bestiaire
Bláar Kindsdottir
Clair de lune, Op.46/2
Joseph Phibbs
The Moon’s Funeral
In darkness let me dwell
Rückert-Lieder – Um Mitternacht
Vaughan Williams
Orpheus with his lute; The water mill
Prison, Op.83/1
Vaughan Williams
The Sky above the roof
Betty Roe
To God: An Anthem sung in the Chappell at White-Hall, before the King
The cloths of heaven
Psalm 150

Iestyn Davies (countertenor) & Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 11 July, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Iestyn Davies. Photograph: Marco Borggreve, 2010A remarkable hour of music to complete Wigmore Hall’s season of BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts found Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake covering 400 years of song in a programme that might have appeared zany on paper, but which held together with surprising cohesion.

The star of the show was Davies’s voice, a remarkable natural instrument. We were able to hear it in a song of real purity, Stuart MacRae’s The Lif of this World. Written in 2008 for the NMC Songbook, this brief but moving utterance takes as its inspiration a Middle English text, the pianist adding just a couple of punctuating chords. From this we moved to Poulenc’s remarkable set of six brief animal portraits, Le bestiaire, sung as the composer intended – with great seriousness and the minimum dash of humour. Julius Drake helped set the scenes – the strange progress of ‘L’écrevisse’ (‘The crayfish’) and the deliberately lethargic accompaniment to ‘La carpe’ (‘The carp’). Completing the first group of songs was a bleak haiku from Icelandic composer Bláar Kindsdottir (born in 1928).

Julius DrakeFor the second group Davies explored a nocturnal theme, beginning with Fauré’s wonderfully fluid Clair de lune, Drake’s accompaniment nudging against the chaste vocalism. Another NMC Songbook commission followed, the declamatory The Moon’s Funeral from Joseph Phibbs (born 1974), after which Davies judged his vibrato and tone very carefully and movingly for In darkness let me dwell. ‘Um mitternacht’, from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, was powerfully wrought, the ever-watchful Drake subsiding to a soaring climax from Davies, taking the higher notes in his stride.

The third group threw in to contrast Vaughan Williams and Fauré, comparing a setting of Verlaine’s Prison by both composers. Fauré’s stark outlook found a colder tone from Davies, while Vaughan Williams’s setting of Mabel Dearmer’s translation, The sky above the roof, was more contemplative, the translation losing some of the poem’s latent anger. Before these the sweet tone of ‘Orpheus and his lute gave way to a nicely characterised The water mill, which tripped along with the piano part reflecting the flitting swallows, the playing cat and the busy house.

Even more diverse was Davies’s final group, with a powerful anthem from Betty Roe (born 1930), written for James Bowman, giving way to a softly shaded song from Thomas Dunhill, The cloths of heaven’ stylistically akin to Vaughan Williams in its language. Finally Edmund Rubbra’s Psalm 150, set for Kathleen Ferrier and the last song she recorded, hit the soaring heights in a curious celebration that seemed to be over before it began.

This whistle-stop tour of high-range songs showed real imagination in its programming, and Iestyn Davies, singing each from memory, had a remarkable grasp of phrase and melody. His encore, Purcell’s Music for a while, was beautifully restrained.

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