Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring ‘sweet music’ to Wigmore Hall

At first glance their programme looked fairly conventional and predictable.
And, as has been the case with all the other vocal recitals in the series
that I’ve watched, it focused on the work of English composers, in this
case from the 16th and 17th centuries – though Davies
and Kenny had a few surprises up their sleeve.

But, it was with the Orpheus Britannicus, Henry Purcell, that we began.
And, I can think of few who communicate the ‘essence’ of this music more
movingly or perceptively than Davies. His plea for music, “Strike the viol,
touch the lute, wake the harp” (from Come, ye songs of art away,
the last of six birthday Odes written for Queen Mary), was a luring,
liquidy invitation, the section repeats temptingly ornamented vocally and
showcased by Kenny’s rhythmically taut but understated accompaniment. ‘By
beauteous softness mixed with majesty’, from the first birthday Ode,
offered more delicate, muted reflections, Kenny’s lute spinning a
translucent spider’s web of interlocking voices and Davies’ countertenor
gliding through the sequential repetitions and variants with soft
smoothness. “He with such sweetness and justness reigns”: it was impossible
to disagree. Davies is able to expand, colour and enrich his voice at the
click of an invisible switch and to integrate such flourishes within what
one would imagine to be an impossibly even line.

The duo segued into ‘Lord, what is man?’, reaching deeper into the
metaphysical profundity of the seventeenth century. There was a wonderful
introspective quality at the start, but as the tessitura and the emotional
scope enlarged – the frequent vocal leaps were effortlessly elided – the
music pushed towards the triple-time “O for a quill” acquiring an ever more
optimistic tone, and finally blooming in the concluding Hallelujah section.
I can imagine many of the current superb bunch of international
countertenors rattling off the virtuosic runs with equal accuracy, but few
who would do so in the service of the music with such insight, daring to
hold back, to tempt and invite with Purcell’s bravura, rather than to
dazzle. No wonder Kenny allowed herself the briefest of smiles at the

Kenny closed the Purcell sequence with her own arrangements of a brusque
Rigadoon, a contemplative Farewell and a nonchalant ‘Lillibulero’, her
playing always lucid and tender as she stroked and plucked her beautiful
theorbo’s strings with care and understanding, nurturing Purcell’s music
into being.

John Dowland, Thomas Campion and Robert Johnson followed. The strophic
suavity of ‘Behold a wonder here’ and ‘The sypres curten of the night is
spread’ beautifully illustrated the compelling unity of vocal directness
and the affective tracery of the lute achieved by Dowland and Campion,
respectively. Davies found particularly expressive nuance in Campion’s
song, sustaining the melancholy introspection while simultaneously
searching through turbulent emotions, as Kenny provided a delicate
lace-work tapestry to support the singer’s sombre but silken reflections.
Davies was no less musical and articulate in conveying the more declamatory
rhetorical intimations of Dowland’s ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant
tears’. Campion’s agile ‘I care not for these ladies’ found the performers
in more nonchalant, but no less perceptive, mood. Kenny interleaved a
Fantasia by Johnson, Dowland’s dynamic King’s Galliard and a brisk Corante
by the intriguing ‘Mr Confess’.

Then came the unexpected. We shifted forwards 100 years. Mozart’s songs are
not usually considered central to his oeuvre (somewhat surprising, perhaps,
given his mastery of every genre of contemporary opera) but the lied
‘Abendempfindung’, composed in June 1787, less than a month after his
father Leopold’s death, exemplifies the art of understated eloquence. The
poet-speaker sings of his presentment of his inevitable death to the
Petrarchian ‘Laura’, pleading with her to shed a tear on his grave which
will be the “fairest pearl” which he takes to his heavenly refuge. Kenny’s
French guitar lilted lightly through the simple arpeggio-accompaniment,
while Davies expressed the depth of the poetic feeling without vocal or
expressive mannerism. The candour was the performance’s power.

Finally came Schubert. ‘Heidenrˆslein’ was deliciously light and
insouciant, with some wonderfully shaped rubatos and diminuendos. Quite
honestly, I could listen to Davies’ mellifluous, subtly expressive
performance of ‘Am Tage aller Seelen’ on a 24-hour loop. If you needed
convincing that a countertenor can make a Schubert lied ‘speak’ here was
your evidence. Kenny knew absolutely where and when to come to the fore and
when to recede. By this point in the recital, I’d run out of superlatives,
so Opera Today readers will have to imagine for themselves, or
watch via the link below.

And, an encore to close: Handel’s ‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’ from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. As Davies explained,
Milton’s text expresses the hope that, after seeming to have lived a
terrible dream, when man awakens sweet music will breathe, and continue to
breathe. So do we all, so do we all.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available


and via BBC Sounds until 22
July. Wigmore Hall’s live stream of this concert was supported by
Hamish Parker.

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute)

Purcell – ‘Strike the viol, touch the lute’ (from Come, ye sons of art, away Z323), ‘By beauteous softness mixed
with majesty’ (from Now Does the Glorious Day Appear Z332), ‘Lord,
what is man?’ (A Divine Hymn Z192), Rigadoon (arr. Elizabeth
Kenny), ‘Sefauchi’s Farewell’ Z656 (arr. Elizabeth Kenny), ‘Lillibulero’
Z646; Dowland – ‘Behold a wonder here’; Campion – ‘The sypres curten of the
night is spread’; Johnson – Fantasia; Dowland – ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true
repentant tears’, ‘The King of Denmark, his Galliard’; Campion – ‘I care
not for these ladies’, Anon – ‘Mr Confess’ Coranto’; Mozart –
‘Abendempfindung’ K523; Schubert – ‘Heidenrˆslein’ D257, ‘ Am Tage aller Seelen’ D343.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22nd June 2020.

product_title=A live recital from Wigmore Hall by Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Elizabeth Kenny (lute)
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies