History Repeating

The capacity audience at the Wigmore Hall was expectant, alert and palpably
animated as they awaited the opening item: three of Benjamin Britten’s
characterful if idiosyncratic realisations of Henry Purcell. From the early
1940s, Britten and Pears had introduced these realisations into their recital
programmes; Britten would later declare that he had not appreciated
“before I first met Purcell, that words could be set with such ingenuity,
with such colour”. These realisations are energetic and restless, if not
always idiomatic. But Davies made them sound natural and fluent, the frequent
sparseness of Britten’s textures resulting in no loss of expressivity as
Davies’ easy, fluid declamation of the text, particularly in the
recitative-like passages, delineated the emotional situation directly and
truthfully. ‘In the Black Dungeon of Despair’ was particularly
transfixing, the chromatic declamations wonderfully shaped, while
‘Sweeter Them Roses’ demonstrated the countertenor’s deftness
and agility. Overall it was the small details that were made to tell so
affectingly: such as the subtle diminuendo on the closing
‘Hallelujah’ of ‘Lord, what is man’, or the poignant
dissonances which draw out the dark sensuality of ‘Sweeter than

Recently Davies gave the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Four
Traditional Songs
— comprising settings of ‘A brisk young
lad’, ‘Searching for lambs’, ‘The cruel mother’
and ‘The bitter withy’ — a work which was jointly
commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Wigmore Hall. Muhly perfectly understands
the need to allow space for the text to speak in these folk ballad
arrangements, and his minimalist style creates an appropriately reflective,
introverted, and at times mysterious, ambience. He also appreciates the wide
range of register and colour which Davies’ voice can encompass —
from a muscular, strong lower voice to a penetrating yet poignantly sweet high
range — and the way that this can be used in the service of

Davies knows how to spin an intimate narrative, almost like a confession,
drawing the audience ever closer; by the final song the audience was
collectively holding its breath, hardly daring to exhale and break the spell.
The precision and control were deceptively effortless: it takes enormous skill
and discipline to shape such expansive phrases, colouring individual words and
subtly altering the dynamics, while maintaining narrative continuity. The vocal
line was penetrating but never shrill; incisive and haunting, and at times
unsettling, but always beautiful and warm. Pianist Malcolm Martineau
complemented the voice economically but expressively – Muhly has described the
piano accompaniment as “highly stylized but understated”. Indeed, these songs
may be sparse but they are also deeply eloquent and touching.

Michael Tippett did not allow Britten a monopoly of song arrangements and
editions of early music, including Purcell, and Tippett’s Songs for
which closed the first half of the recital, reveal his own
Purcellian inheritance. In ‘Come into these yellow sands’ and
‘Full fathom five’, pianist and countertenor made much of the
evolving counterpoint which energises Tippett’s idiom. A bright joyful
timbre characterised ‘Where the bee sucks’, Davies nonchalantly
evoking Ariel’s freedom of spirit and blissful release.

The second half commenced in more reflective, sombre fashion with
Britten’s realisations of J.S. Bach’s Five Spiritual
. Here the elegance of Davies’ phrasing, as well as his full
rich tone, conveyed both the disturbing and consoling moments in the texts with
equal affective power. Again, it was the remarkable yet inconspicuous attention
to small nuances which proved so moving: the careful placement of the words,
‘Es ist gnug, Herr’ in ‘Liebster Herr Jesus’, each
isolated by the most miniscule of separations, was spine-chilling.

Davies found himself in unfamiliar countertenor territory for the next item,
Schubert’s lied, ‘Der Tod und das M‰dchen’. In fact, his
timbre gave a song where voice type and manner are innately provocative, an
added piquancy. For, the singer must embody two differently gendered roles:
first, a maiden who pleas for death to pass her by, and then Death himself, who
reassures that it is rest not terror that he brings. The shift from the
maiden’s high register to Death’s lower realms is further
complicated by the countertenor timbre — one might describe the effect as
a serious version of more familiar comic, en travesti subversions.
Davies’ lower range is muscular, even tenorial, which made the sepulchral
descent through a D Minor scale and the chilly repeated Ds to which
Death’s melody repeatedly returns, deadening and bleak. Although there
was little of the emotive vocal strain at the close that is inevitable when the
song is sung by a woman, Davies was able to convincingly convey both the
agitation of the maiden in the first stanza and Death’s knelling reply,
making the intermingling of personae even more unsettling. Martineau’s
funereal piano prelude was transformed into a hymn-like postlude, further
highlighting the ambiguities of the text.

Brahms’ F¸nf Ges‰nge Op.72 is the last of four sets of songs
composed during 1875-77. The first song, ‘Alte Liebe’, has a text
by Candidus which speaks of the memories of young love — sentiments which
undoubtedly resonated personally for Brahms. Martineau proved himself a
sensitive and intelligent accompanist in these songs, in which the vocal line
and accompaniment textures are intricately interwoven. Davies’ slow vocal
phrases unfolded expressively over Martineau’s gentle, low register
arpeggios, but harmonic intensification rapidly injected restless passion,
before subsiding to a resigned close, with falling fifths resounding emptily in
the piano accompaniment.

Translated as ‘Invincible’, ‘Un¸berwindlich’, the
fifth of the Op.72 set, is Goethe’s drinking song, comparing women to wine.
Both pianist and singer displayed a sharp wit and light spirit, making much of
the humorous word-painting and ironic musical quotation (a motif from Domenico
Scarlatti’s harpsichord Sonata in D (Longo 214). The performers enjoyed the
drawn out octaves between the voice and piano which mark the several oaths
sworn during the song, and the conclusion was suitably uproarious.

Herbert Howells, nostalgic song, O My Deir Hert, was performed with
particular sweetness, Davies’ luminous tone aptly conveying the faith and
passion of the Luther-inspired text.

During his last months in America in the mid-1940s, Britten assuaged his
homesickness by producing many arrangements of folk songs of the British Isles,
which he and Pears performed as encores. Britten noted at the time that they
created a “’wow’ wherever they have been performed so
far!”, and Davies kept up this tradition! The relaxed joyfulness of
‘That yongÎ child’ was followed by an exquisitely crafted rendering
of ‘The Ash Grove’, the vocal melody enhanced by Martineau’s
delicate accompaniment, commencing high above the voice, then sinking deep
below before rising to ethereal heights once again for the close. ‘Oliver
Cromwell’, a setting of a traditional Suffolk nursery rhyme, places a
comically malicious text over a smirking piano accompaniment, in a vibrant folk
style. The final lines are: “If you want any more, you can sing it
yourself, Hee-haw, sing it yourself.” The audience undoubtedly wanted
much more, but Davies’ artistry rendered any other contributions

Davies seems to have it all. His tone is pure and centred, unfailingly
beautiful across all registers, never ceasing to make an expressive or dramatic
impact. Intonation is near perfect, technical demands are effortlessly
despatched, and Davies communicates directly with his audience, confident and
direct in a range of styles and forms. There is no undue fussiness but subtle
details are perceived, considered and strikingly conveyed. Such innate
musicality and unassuming mastery are rare, and to be treasured; as are the
apparent joy and delight both experienced and shared — which the exultant
Wigmore Hall clientele clearly understood.

Claire Seymour


Henry Purcell: ‘Lord, what is man’ (realised by Britten);
‘In the black, dismal dungeon of despair’; ‘Sweeter than
Nico Muhly: Four Traditional Songs (UK premiere)
Michael Tippett: Songs for Ariel
J.S. Bach: Five Spiritual Songs (Geistliche Lieder)
Franz Schubert: ‘Der Tod und das M‰dchen’
Johannes Brahms: ‘Alte Liebe’; ‘Un¸berwindlich’
Herbert Howells: ‘O my deir hert’
Benjamin Britten: ‘That yongÎ child’; ‘The ash grove’;
‘Oliver Cromwell’

image_description=Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=History Repeating
product_by=Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 7th May 2012.
product_id=Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]