Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

It can caress a melody with sweetness or poignancy, sincerity or gravity; it
can whip through fearsome runs and roulades with crystalline definition and
focused tone; it can charm with a spell, terrify with rage, mesmerise with
lyrical beauty, and trouble with introspection.

All of these qualities, and more — infinite variety of colour, expressive
depth, airy transience, silky richness — were on display at the Wigmore Hall
during this wonderful opening concert of the 2015-16 season in which Davies
performed alongside the players of the English Concert and their director Harry
Bicket, presenting a series of arias from several of Handel’s Italian operas,
interspersed with instrumental items by Veracini, Porpora and Handel himself.

Partenope was the opera with which Handel re-opened the Royal
Academy in 1729 and which is unusual in having two difficult parts written for
castrato singers. Davies performed the role of Arsace, the reprobate who
abandons his lover Rosmira to woo the Queen of Venice, Partenope (who has
attracted the attention of two other rivals), at New York City Opera in 2010.
‘Sento amor’ (Love unrelenting), in which Arsace professes his divided
loyalties, was notable for the ease with which Davies negotiated the high lying
melody, moving lightly through the rapid runs, the phrases expanding naturally
and flawlessly. ‘Ch’io parta’ (Must I depart) was poised and directly
expressive; the falling octave motif registered the weight which burdens Arsace
(‘Parto, ma senza cor’; I go, but leave with you my heart) and there was a
tender diminuendo to a barely audible pianissimo in the final phrase before the
resigned, melancholy da capo. In ‘Furibondo spira il vento’ (The furious
blast), Arsace describes the tumultuous unrest in his heart as duty battles
with love; Davies whirled through the semiquavers but never at the expense of
musicality and communication, and was supported by some spirited violin
playing. The three arias were preceded by the opera’s overture in which tempi
were surprisingly but persuasively brisk, the triple time section particularly
spirited, and the reedy directness of the oboes formed a pleasing counterpart
to sweet-toned strings.

Throughout the evening, violinist Nadja Zwiener was a vigorous, confident
and characterful leader. And, in Veracini’s Overture No.2 in F, Zwiener and
director/harpsichordist Harry Bicket inspired each of the players of the
English Concert to perform with a soloist’s presence yet to meld their
individual voice into a fluent ‘whole’. There was some terrific
coordination in the quicksilver piano passages for violins, and the
full-toned oboes in the Sarabande complemented the even legato pairings of the
strings alluringly. The Gigue was punchy and vivacious, and the final Menuetto
anything but ‘stately’.

Two arias from Rinaldo followed. Rinaldo, based on
Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberate, was the first opera which Handel wrote
for London and was first performance at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, in
1711. Davies sang the title role at Glyndebourne in 2014 and here reprised
‘Cara sposa’ (My dear betrothed) — the protagonist’s lament for the
abducted Almirena — and ‘Venti turbini’ (Winds, gales), in which the hero
swears to get revenge on the sorceress Armida. The former was the essence of
simplicity: the voice entered part-way through the deliciously pulsing
introductory violin melody, and Davies used his lower register most
expressively, moving smoothly across octave leaps to convey Rinaldo’s despair
and confusion. Concertante violin and bassoon added to the fury of the latter
aria: Davies’ vocal flexibility was remarkable, as he made ‘music’ of the
virtuosic runs, in perfect synchronisation with Alberto Grazzi’s expertly
executed bassoon scamperings.

‘Pompe vane di morte! … Dove sei’ (The hollow splendour of death! …
Where are you) opened the second half of the recital. Davies made his New York
Met debut in Rodelinda, and reprised the role of Bertarido — who has
been driven from his kingdom by Grimoaldo and is presumed dead, leaving behind
his grieving wife, Rodelinda — at ENO in 2014. Here, Bertarido returns to be
reunited with his wife: the recitative in which he reads the inscription on his
‘tomb’ was steady and strong of tone, but a marvellous change of mood was
effected for the aria, ‘Dove sei’, in which Bertarido reveals his
vulnerability and desire, longing for reunion with his wife.

The principal string players were given the chance to shine in Porpora’s
Sinfonia da camera in G Op.2 No.1. There was much incisive, vivacious playing,
and cellist Joseph Crouch displayed a particularly appealing tone and ear for
nuanced phrasing. But it was a shame that the two violinists, Zwiener and Alice
Evans, were not encouraged to turn to face the audience, for Evans was
disadvantaged by the angling of her violin towards the rear, which resulted in
an imbalance with Zwiener’s audacious and forthright playing.

Four arias from Orlando ≠— which Davies will perform with Bicket
and the English Concert at the Barbican in 2016≠ — followed. I was
particularly captivated by the expressive range of both voice and
instrumentalists in the recitative ‘Ah Stigie larve’ (Ah Stygian monsters),
in which the unhinged Orlando descends to the Underworld: furious string
passagework contrasted dramatically with slow, perfectly tuned unison descents,
J¯rgen Skogmo’s theorbo adding greatly to the affekt. The repeating
rondo melody of ‘Vaghe pupille’ (Lovely eyes) was similarly moving,
Davies’ simple directness poignantly expressing Orlando’s insanity – he
thinks that he is surrounded by mythical creatures and gods — which has
resulted from the extreme jealousy that Angelica’s love for another has

After the Passacaille from Rodelinda — in which the expressive,
agile bass line provided gentle direction to the pervasive swing of the
triple-time pulse, and which was notable for the simultaneous contrasts and
blending of string and woodwind voices — the concert closed with two further
arias from Orlando. ‘Fammi combattere’ (Go bid me fight) once
again demonstrated the effortless fluidity with which Davies can despatch
Handel’s coloratura demands: despite the virtuosic extravagances, the
phrasing remained ‘musical’, the breathing controlled and even, the sound
bright and clean. ‘Gi‡ per la man d’Orlando … Gi‡ cl’ebro mio
ciglio’ (Now by Orlando’s hand … Drugged by this sweet liquid) was a
well-chosen final item, in which the elegance and beauty of the vocal line,
complemented by the unadorned directness of the strings was paradoxically both
hypnotically soporific and compellingly engaging.

In Handel’s Saul (which Iestyn Davies performed at Glyndebourne
earlier this year), David’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies are numberless’ has
little effect on the deluded, raging Saul; but Davies’ encore here was the
epitome of musical solace and succour.

Speculations about the sentiments and ambitions of historical figures can
only ever be just that: assumption and guesswork. But, it is pleasing to
imagine that Handel would have been delighted and inspired to have had Iestyn
Davies performing alongside castrati such as Senesino in the Royal Academy
Company. Or, that, should he have been blessed with the gift of foresight, he
would have relished the knowledge that Davies would be communicating his music
so eloquently, persuasively and with such consummate skill to audiences three
hundred years hence.

Claire Seymour

Performers and Programme:

The English Concert; Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Harry Bicket,
director, harpsichord.

Handel: Overture and three arias from Partenope (‘Sento
amor’, ‘Ch’io parte’, Furibondo spira il vento’); Veracini: Overture
No.2 in F; Handel: Two arias from RInaldo (‘Cara sposo’, ‘Venti
turbini’), Aria fromRodelinda (‘Pompe vane di morte! … Dove
sei’); Porpora: Sinfonia da camera in G Op.2 No.1; Handel: Four arias from
Orlando (‘Ah Stigie larve’, ‘Gi‡ latra Cerbero’, ‘Ma la
furia’, ‘Vaghe pupille’), Passacaille from Radamisto, Two arias
from Orlando (‘Fammi combattere’, ‘Gi‡ per la man d’Orlando
… Gi‡ cl’ebro mio ciglio’)

Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 12th September 2015.

image_description=Iestyn Davis and The English Concert [Photo by Sisi Burn]
product_title=Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Iestyn Davis and The English Concert [Photo by Sisi Burn]