Iestyn Davies and Fretwork bring about a meeting of the baroque and the modern

All of Davies’ astute musicianship, technical expertise and expressive
sensitivity was in evidence in Purcell’s song, compressed within four
minutes of exquisite musical rhetoric. The twists and leaps of the
ascending ground bass were articulated with lyricism as Davies let the
descending melodic phrases fall silkily. His care with the text was both
exemplary and thoughtful: a frisson on ‘beguile’ in the first phrase was
transferred to the repetitions of ‘for all’ in the second. The snakes
dropped from Alecto’s head as if slipping into cold water. The reiterated
pledge of the closing phrase was dusted with a dash of piquancy by the
upwards appoggiatura at the final cadence and by the suggestive lingering
of the voice, the slightest vocal resonance persisting beyond the viols’

Interested readers can turn to my recent

interview with Iestyn Davies

for his (and my) thoughts about the musical threads that tether the baroque
and minimalism together across three hundred years of changing musical
forms and language, as well as for details about the origins and first
performances of the works by Nyman included in this programme.

In her programme article, Alexandra Coghlan suggests that, although they
share a ‘common vocabulary’, what distinguishes Bach and Purcell, say, from
minimalists such as Glass and Nyman, is the use to which the composers put
such means: that is, the repetitions of a Purcellian ground bass result in
an intensification of emotion whereas the gyrations of minimalism serve ‘to
strip away emotional as well as musical landmarks, to nullify, to

I think that in some contexts this is probably true. But, this concert
suggested that a more nuanced comparative relationship and dialogue is at
work: that it is ‘time’, or rather the dialectic between timelessness and
movement, which is at the core of both baroque and minimalist idioms, but
that composers from these respective eras explore and articulate concepts
of rest and unrest, stillness and progress, in different ways. Emotion, and
its intensification, is present in both idioms, but the arousal of such
emotion is achieved by contrasting methods of manipulating repetitive
structures – whether structural, harmonic or motivic – as these features
engage with other musical elements.

Or, as Iestyn Davies himself put it, with more directness, both Purcell and
Nyman seem to contrive to deliberately make us aware of the passing of
time. The works performed here certainly seemed to exemplify the way that
Purcell’s emotional intensification and rhetorical ‘progression’ is
effected by what I previously described as ‘ever more complex, nuanced
elaboration, and more radical re-interpretation of harmonic structures and
inferences’, while Nyman’s music acquires accumulating intensity, and
restlessness, through amendments – sometimes unexpected – to the ‘episodic
reiterations’ which results in forward movement of a sometimes physically
shuddering nature.

The programme was framed by two works by Nyman for countertenor and viols.
The seven short metaphysical epigrams, ‘To Music’, by Robert Herrick which
Nyman sets in the form of a continuous unfolding in No Time in Eternity, immediately foreground the
seventeenth-century representation of music as something active, with the
power to effect varied change – by turns redemptive and destructive,
enchanting and decadent. ‘Begin to charm’ is the initial, repeated cry, as
the poet calls upon Music to first ‘melt me into tears’, then ‘make my
spirits frantic’ and finally ‘make me smooth as balm and oil again’. Davies
instantly cast an Orphic spell. The purity of his countertenor as he
reiterated the opening word, ‘Begin’, set against the quiet, dark
graininess of the viols’ gently propelling rhythmic gesture, and the
intensification of chromatic false relations, beautifully embodied the
sensual impact of Herrick’s ‘silvery strain’.

And aptly too, for, as the title implies, Herrick is concerned with the
human, the ‘body’, rather than with the ethereal: ‘By hours we all live
here;/ In Heaven is known/ No spring of time, or time’s succession.’
Herrick’s text emphasises the seventeenth-century concern with the unequal
relationship between the music of the world and the music of the spheres on
which it is based. The cold sparsity of the viol textures and voice-viol
unisons in ‘Things Mortal Still Mutable’ emphasised the dangers that
uncertainty and change bring to man, who is set on ‘icy pavements’, as well
as the inevitable progression of musical phrase upon musical phrase. I was
struck, too, by the clarity and shapeliness of Nyman’s melodic
definition in ‘The Definition of Beauty’ – ‘Beauty no other thing is than a
beam/Flashed out between the middle and extreme.’ – and by Davies’ diction
and eloquence here. The epigrammatic fragment conjured in my mind the
text-setting of Benjamin Britten, particularly the early works such as Hymn to St Cecilia, another poetic mediation on the nature of
music and its power: ‘Translated Daughter, come down and startle/Composing
mortals with immortal fire.’

Nyman’s Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence
written for and first performed by Fretwork and James Bowman –
drew forth contrasting but complementary skills from Davies and Fretwork. Sustained high declamatory utterances, relentless octave
leaps, melismatic unpredictability, excursions into the singer’s lowest
register which emphasise Inanna’s princely status – ‘He has given me
lordship’: all these musical elements captured the power-hungry egoism of
the Sumerian Queen, the ancient goddess of love, sensuality, fertility,
procreation and war – and all were effortless despatched by Davies. Fretwork added drama to the rhetorical pronunciations of identity
and self-belief: shimmering upper viols and brusque pizzicato sweeps;
folk-like circulatory gestures which whipped up energy in the middle
voices; driving repeated groups of semi-quavers; unison crystallisations of
the self-belief confirmed by forceful repetitions, ‘is mine’.

In two songs ‘If’ and ‘Why’, written by Nyman to texts by Roger Pulvers for
inclusion in director Seiya Araki’s 1995 animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank, even these supreme musicians could not
quite overcome the banality of Pulvers’ texts which express a child-like
hope – ‘I’d blink my eyes/And wave my arms./I’d wish a wish to stop all
harm’ – but whose anaphoric pleas (‘Tell me why, somebody … Why people can
not love./ Why people hate all day and night/ […] Why adults fight over
God/Why adults fight over colour/ Why adults go to war.’) have the ring of
a collective classroom poetry project. That said, the looseness of the
musicians’ crafting of Nyman’s ostinatos, which slip between time
signatures and across varied phrase lengths, added some thought-provoking
depth to the general consonant sweetness.

More interesting was Nyman’s Music after a while for viol consort,
receiving its world premiere, for it offered a direct dialogue between
present and past. Nyman begins with a sort of retrograde inversion variant
on Purcell’s ground, the semitone falling rather than rising, before
leaping up a fourth (not a fifth), and the distortions are further
exacerbated by the irregularity of the rhythmic values in contrast to
Purcell’s steady progression. The result is an increased frustration, as
the motif seems to fight against itself rather than simply accumulate
intensity as it moves forward. Gradually, the rhythmic figuration and
syncopated tension increase, and the drama derived from growing the
harmonic complexity and revolving deep bass line was enhanced by the
delicious airiness of the viol players’ bow strokes which seemed to fly and
float across the strings. Purcell’s ground, in its original form,
increasingly made its presence felt, though it had to fight through chromatic
obstacles and fast viol figures in the upper voices to sustain itself, and
such dialogues resulted in rhythmic disjunctions which were eventually
subdued into unisons and steadiness of pulse. This was a thrilling
conversation between a ghostly voice and a present scribe.

However, the highlight of the concert was, inevitably perhaps, the beauty
of Davies’ countertenor – for which I don’t really have the words, which is
probably as it should be. Purcell’s ‘An Evening Hymn’ had closed the first
part of the recital with hypnotic reverie. The encore was ‘O Solitude’, the
28 ground-bass repetitions of which – of infinite expressive variety,
imaginative re-interpretation, formal flexibility – surely issue a
challenge to any composer, baroque or minimalist. It’s hard, too, to
imagine a text – Antoine Girard Saint-Amand’s ‘O que j’ayme la solitude!’,
translated by Purcell’s contemporary, Katherine Philip – more diametrically
opposed to the self-aggrandising oratory of the Sumerian warrior-Queen
which had preceded it. Davies, accompanied initially by lute-mimicking
pizzicatos then by graceful viol interweaving, was Orpheus Britannicus

Claire Seymour

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Joanna
Levine, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby)

Michael Nyman – No Time in Eternity; Purcell – Two Fantazias in
four parts, ‘Music for a While’; Nyman – Music after a while;
Purcell – ‘An Evening Hymn’; Nyman – Balancing the Books, The Diary of Anne Frank (‘If’, ‘Why’); Purcell – Fantazy in four
parts and Fantazy upon one note (1680); Nyman – Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Monday 28th May 2018.

image_description=Iestyn Davies and Fretwork at Milton Court Concert Hall, 28th May 2018
product_title=Iestyn Davies and Fretwork at Milton Court Concert Hall, 28th May 2018
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Chris Sorensen