The Art of the Countertenor

This recital of gems
from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries undoubtedly confirmed why Davies
deserves such acclamations. Moreover, a concert of two distinct halves, it
demonstrated the extraordinary range of his technical accomplishments, musical
insights and dramatic embodiments. Unaffected and assured, he does not seek to
impose himself upon the music; rather, his easeful stage presence and innate
appreciation of the requirements of each particular musical medium allows the
music itself to rise to the fore. The voice never distracts; it is only at the
final cadence that one realises how supremely the song has been served.

We began in the seventeenth century with an exquisitely compiled and
meticulously researched programme. Not only were the names unfamiliar but works
were chosen to demonstrate idiosyncratic, and often unusual, qualities.
Benedetto Ferrari’s triple-time, ‘Voglio di vita uscir’
(‘I want to depart this life’) introduced us to the Italian court
musician, librettist and theorbo player’s penchant for the chaconne bass.
Davies’ fresh, unaffected voice moved effortlessly between registers,
particularly in the expressive recitative with which the song closes.

In ‘Figlio dormi’ (‘Sleep son’) by Giovanni Girolami
Kapsberger — a celebrated virtuoso on the lute and theorbo —
accompanist Richard Egarr’s gentle introduction and delicate instrumental
episodes summoned to mind the affectionate, tender strumming of the lute.
Embellishments were relished by both performers, and perfectly judged. This
traditional ‘Ninna la nanna’ lullaby charmed and calmed; in
contrast, the continuous, oscillating, two-note motif which underpins Tarquinio
Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’ bewitched
and disconcerted, before the consoling serenity of the final major key

Listening to Richard Egarr’s accompaniments was the aural equivalent
of watching a painter at work. Relaxed and confident, instinctively attuned to
the ‘colours’ of each song, Egarr selected just the right tints and
shades from an extraordinarily rich palette of tones and textures. The ground
bass in Ferrari’s devotional cantata, ‘Quest pungenti spine’
was superbly realised; the surprising dissonances between voice and harpsichord
were piquantly emphasised but never exaggerated. Davies’ breath control
is extraordinary and was on display in a variety of contexts: in the
extravagant vocal gymnastics of the more elaborate coloratura episodes of
cantatas by Porpora and Vivaldi; in Antonio’s Cesti’s intricate,
freely exploratory lines in ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ (‘Gape
open, ye abysses’); and also here in Ferrari’s long-held, tender
opening notes. From the initial lyrical tranquillity, the countertenor found
just the right sentiment of yearning and ‘sweet torment’, building
as the lines become more florid and impassioned, to an ecstatic conclusion:
“my Lord and God;/ they are the divine arrows/ that, softened and
tempered/ by heaven’s fire/ attract and delight — ”. The
chaconne bass is interrupted four times by recitative refrains, and the
performers’ mastery of the formal structure more than matched their
command of musical detail — and their delight in the harmonic

The second half saw us on the more familiar terrain of the eighteenth
century. In Porpora’s cantata, ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
(‘Ah, if only my heart’), Davies revealed his dramatic poise,
moving effortlessly between the moods of the successive recitatives and arias.
Vivaldi’s ‘Pianti, sospiri’ (‘Weeping, sighing’)
drew forth the peaks of Davies’ technical armoury — his projection,
pacing, ornamental invention and virtuosic elasticity quite simply took
one’s breath away. However complicated the line, the voice remained
unhindered and light.

In between the vocal treasures, Egarr offered readings of
Frescobaldi’s ‘Se l’aura spira’ and ‘Capriccio
sopra Ut re mi fa sol la’, and Handel’s Suite in D (HMV428),
exploiting texture to create a remarkable ‘dynamic’ variety; the
pianissimo passages were particularly beautiful. Expertly shaping
harmonic sequences and cadences, Egarr assembled the architectural forms of
Handel’s Suite like a master builder.

The encores — an athletic showcase from Partenope and the
lovely Irish folksong, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ —
demonstrated the performers’ unpretentious, genuine and infectious joy in
the music and its performance. This recital celebrated Director John
Gilhooly’s 10 years at Wigmore Hall. He could not have wished for a more
glorious musical tribute.

Claire Seymour


Ferrari‘Voglio di vita uscir’
Kapsberger ‘Figlio dormi’
Frescobaldi Toccata Settima from Il secondo libro (solo harpsichord)
Frescobaldi ‘Se l’aura spira’
Ferrari ‘Queste pungenti spine’
Frescobaldi ‘Capriccio sopra Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la’ (solo
Cesti Selino’s Lament: ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ from
Merula ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’
Porpora Cantata: ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
Handel Suite No.3 in D minor HWV428 (solo harpsichord)
Vivaldi Cantata: Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede

image_description=Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=The Art of the Countertenor
product_by=Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Richard Egarr, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 13th January 2011
product_id=Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]