No Time in Eternity: Iestyn Davies discusses Purcell and Nyman

In fact, Purcell and Nyman are not ‘musical strangers’. Nyman’s soundtrack
for Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draftsman’s Contract
had drawn on Purcellian grounds – the composer is credited on the album as
‘music consultant’ – and the original Michael Nyman Band, formed in 1976,
comprised instruments old and new: rebecs, sackbuts and shawms were heard
alongside a banjo, electric bass and saxophone.

The Milton Court concert programme was curated by Fretwork’s Richard
Boothby, Iestyn Davies explains, and includesThe Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and Her Omnipotence (1992) , written for and first performed by Fretwork and James Bowman.
The text – a translation of an ancient Near-Eastern hymn – is characterised
by repetitions of the Sumerian Queen of Heaven’s sweeping exaltations of
self-praise. The more recent No Time in Eternity – settings of
seven short poems by the 17th-century metaphysical poet, Robert
Herrick – was commissioned in 2014 by another viol consort, Ensemble
CÈladon, and countertenor Paulin B¸ndgen, and first performed by them in

There are further reflections on the musical and historical past in Nyman’s Balancing the Books, commissioned for the 250th anniversary of
Bach’s death and loosely based on ideas drawn from the 48 Preludes and
Fugues, and in the songs ‘If’ and ‘Why’, written to texts by Roger Pulvers
and for inclusion in director Seiya Araki’s animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank (1995). Alongside Purcell’s
‘Evening Hymn’ and several of the composer’s fantasias for viol, a work
which intimates a direct ‘conversation’ between past and present, Nyman’s Music after a While, completes the programme.

Christina Pluhar and


have previously woven the baroque, folk and jazz into a seamless tapestry;
can minimalism be interlaced into the mix? I ask Iestyn Davies what forms
and methods might create dialogue between the music of Purcell and Nyman?
He remarks the similarity between the lucidity of the composers’ approaches
to the setting of the English language, and also the repetitive structures
that provide both architectural foundations and developmental impetus; both
composers seem to contrive to deliberately make us aware of the passing of
time. Certainly, I am often struck by the paradoxical presence of both
somewhat rarefied gravity and accumulating rhetorical passion in the works
of both composers, but I wonder if the ‘forward movement’ to which Iestyn
refers is created by rather different means: that is, while Purcell’s
repetitions are characterised by ever more complex, nuanced elaboration,
and more radical re-interpretation of harmonic structures and inferences,
Nyman effects forward ‘shifts’ by amending episodic reiterations – or, as
Iestyn puts it, we are often ‘jolted’ by unanticipated interruptions to the
revolving patterns.

I heard Iestyn Davies and Fretwork perform at Kings Place in

December 2015

when I found the textural and timbral interplay of the viol consort and the
countertenor voice compelling. The latter’s purity and limpidity and the
gentle grain and refinement of the instrumental ensemble make interesting
bedfellows. I ask Iestyn what he finds stimulating and challenging about
performing with Fretwork – does one try to become the sixth voice in the
viol consort? – and he surprises me with a detailed, sensitive and informed
description of the contrast between the articulation, and thus the emphasis
and phrasing, that results from the performance technique and
practicalities of playing the viol. And, he notes the way this can surprise
a performer who might more frequently perform a particular song with lute
or string accompaniment. To exemplify, he hums the first few notes of the
ground bass of Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’ and illustrates – gesturally
and vocally – the way in which the viol-player’s bow-hold results in a
‘pushed’ rather than ‘pulled’ stroke, and so shapes the way the ground’s
rising progressions are crafted and accented. He is no less precise and
discerning when responding to my query whether performing with
stringed-instrument accompaniments presents particular tuning problems to
singers, explaining with astuteness and clarity the way in which a singer
perceives the sung sound from both within and without, and the subsequent
significance that the size and acoustic nature of the performing
environment can have. He refers to a recent performance of Gluck’s

Orfeo ed Euridice

to illustrate some of the challenges, noting that the delicacy of the
strings’ texture in the quiet passage which follows ‘Che farÚ’ can make the
harmony difficult to discern, and drawing a parallel with the shifting
interplay of the viol voices within the consort – when performing at the
less familiar pitch of A=430, for example.

Reflecting on repertoire, I note that the countertenor’s lot is essentially
one of ‘old and new’ with a couple of centuries missing in between, but
Iestyn reminds me that in June he will perform a programme of Purcell,
Mendelssohn, Schumann and Quilter with soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist
Joseph Middleton at

Wigmore Hall

(drawing on their 2017 album,

Lost is My Quiet

). And, then there is Schubert, specifically

Die schˆne M¸llerin

which I heard the countertenor perform at Middle Temple Hall with pianist
Julius Drake in July last year. A recording of Florean Boesch singing a
Schubert lied and a telephone call from Drake stirred Iestyn’s initial
interest: after further consideration and investigation, Die schˆne M¸llerin – with a less broad registral range than other
of Schubert’s cycles and a prevailingly ‘youthful’ spirit – seemed
‘do-able’. Though evidently very satisfied with the performance at Temple –
and justifiably so; not only did both musicians’ technical and expressive
performances provide much to admire, I was impressed too by the
‘imaginative psychological portrait that Davies and Drake created, and by
the convincing coherence of the narrative arc of the sequence’ – Iestyn
seems in no hurry to repeat the experience!

Instead, in July he returns to Glyndebourne to reprise his role as David in
Barrie Kosky’s production of Handel’s Saul; he speaks eagerly
about revisiting some of the dramatic challenges which Kosky poses and
looks forward to the freshness that an entirely new cast will bring to the
production. Kosky’s Saul was first seen in 2015, the year that
also saw Iestyn treading the theatrical boards alongside Mark Rylance in
Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, which originated at
the Globe Theatre and subsequently transferred to the West End, and then to
Broadway in 2017. Iestyn seems unbothered by the travel demands which
modern-day singers faced, and looks forward to returning to New York in
November this year – where last autumn he appeared at the Met in Thomas
AdËs The Exterminating Angel (seen at the


in April 2017) – to perform the role of Terry Rutland in Nico Muhly’s Marnie.

When I ask what is on his repertoire/role ‘wish-list’, apart from observing
that Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is infinitely rewarding,
Iestyn is pragmatic, open-minded and positive – he describes himself as a
‘fatalist’. He explains that the path to ‘star’ status was neither
unclouded nor straight: he had been a ‘good’ treble at St John’s College
Cambridge, but at eighteen it was not necessarily evident that he would be
a ‘good countertenor’. Both Wells Cathedral – where he sang each Tuesday
during his final year at school, and then as a full-time choral scholar
during his gap year before university – and the London conservatoires, to
which he applied post Cambridge Archaeology studies, did not instantly open
their doors. Moreover, he has a healthily rational and reasonable attitude
to decisions made and past triumphs and failures: one can’t have regrets.
If he had studied at Eton, as his mother had wished, and not attended the
school at which she was a deputy head, his experiences would have been
‘different’, but would they necessarily have been ‘better’ or the outcome
more advantageous?

Iestyn speaks sensitively and intelligently, too, about the identification
of the singer with their voice – by singers themselves and listeners alike.
He remarks that while he wants to sing as long as he is able to perform at
the highest level, when the time comes to stop there will be other things
in life: one is not born a singer, and alongside performing there
is simply being a ‘human being’ too. I find his observations about this
merging of voice and identity fascinating, and agree that it is the
‘uniqueness’ of the singer’s sound which is so captivating; while
there are some instrumentalists whose tone is instantly recognisable, the
singing voice presents not just an interpretation of a particular piece of
music, rather it is the visceral embodiment of it – and it can feel as if
it is literally touching the heart. Iestyn remarks that this is as true of
singers who have had a classical training, and those in other genres who
have not, and notes that the speaking voice does not exert the same
mesmeric sway.

I’ve no doubt, though, that on

28th May at Milton Court Concert Hall
, Iestyn Davies and Fretwork will entrance us once more.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Iestyn Davies and Fretwork perform Purcell and Nyman at Milton Court Theatre, 28th May 2018
product_title=Iestyn Davies and Fretwork perform Purcell and Nyman at Milton Court Theatre, 28th May 2018
product_by=An interview with Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve