Iestyn Davies and Arcangelo, at Wigmore Hall

I have a vague memory of having heard Iestyn Davies sing Handel’s Nine German Arias before at Wigmore Hall, perhaps ten or so years ago … but my review files come up blank, and there’s no time for Googling.  Perhaps it was a rare musical treat when I didn’t have pen in hand?  Whatever, the combination of intimacy and theatricality that Davies and Arcangelo seemed to strike at Wigmore Hall, on the poignant eve of London’s ‘Tier-3 tears’, seemed to ring a bell.

That said, Davies’ performances are never anything but technically immaculate, beautifully sung, and discerningly delivered.  So, I could be remembering any one of countless performances by the countertenor that I’ve enjoyed over the many years.

The Nine German Arias are an interesting ‘group’.  Composed between 1724-26, they are scored for soprano, unstipulated obbligato and bass (so I presume that they were transposed down here), and their texts are by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, whose Passion text Handel had previously set, in 1716. And, these texts (taken from Brockes’ anthology, Earthly Delight in God) proclaim a pantheistic ideology celebrating God’s goodness as manifest in nature – sentiments which have a piquant and complex impact today.  Their Enlightenment positivism is paradoxically both uplifting and disarming.  Man in harmony with nature?

These arias are not bravura display pieces – though they are no ‘easy’ sing.  Some scholars have argued that they were written for private, domestic performance.  Others have noted that there are musical relationships between these German Arias and arias in Handel’s operas, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda and Tamerlano.  They were certainly not conceived as a ‘cycle’ and were collected under their present title in 1914.

The opening lines of ‘Künftger Zeiten eitler Kummer/ Stört nicht unsern sanften Schlummer’ (Vain worries of the future, do not disturb our gentle sleep) might not seem very reassuring at present.  But violinist Matthew Truscott and Davies totally soothed all cares.  What beautiful etching of the expressive ‘line’; and, from Davies, what eloquent phrasing, ornament – reserved, then tastefully elaborated with the da capo repeat – and what ensemble accord, from director Jonathan Cohen, lutenist Thomas Dunford and cellist Jonathan Manson.  Somehow, in just a few minutes, worries were assuaged.

The seventh aria, ‘Die ihr aus dunklen Grüften’, which followed, is more assertive and forthright, and Davies and the instrumentalists accordingly adjusted their tone and tightened the rhythms.  Truscott introduced a no-nonsense brusqueness into his brush strokes, and Dunford unobtrusively seemed to propel all forward.  As for Davies, the abrupt shifts of register, the switches from angularity to legato lyricism, the meticulous ornamentation, were all taken in his stride and he totally carried the listener with him.  It’s difficult to imagine more engaging and persuasive singing.

And, quite frankly, the lyrical comforts of ‘Susse Stille, sanfte Quelle’ made one feel that all might be, somehow, sometime, alright with the world. Davies’ combination of tonal purity and energised lustre was breath-taking; again, the elaborations unified intellect and instinct; and, at the close Dunford’s discerning intensity as he responded to Truscott’s phrasing was mesmerising – and almost unhinged in its obsessive focus.  Jonathan Manson took the obbligato part in ‘Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken’ and established a lovely fluency and narrative which propelled the whole aria. 

Davies’ effortless linear lyricism, suppleness and nuanced expression made one find comfort in the fecundity and favour of nature as expressed by Brockes, in ‘Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen’; the instrumental complement was so light and fleet that the music really did seem propelled into the heavenly sphere by natural delights.  In contrast, the varied phrasal structures of ‘Singe, Seele, Gott zum Preise’ create tremendous dramatic tension which Davies both exploited and controlled, consummately.  The flaming rose certainly gleamed in ‘Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden’ – the progressively more intense, but always measured and noble, expression was wonderful; there was more light and shade – and thus more dramatic tension – in ‘In den angenehmen Büschen’. ‘Meine Seele hört im Sehen’ had tremendous momentum and vigour.

Between Handel’s German arias, the instrumentalists interpolated music by Geminiani, Marais and Handel himself.  Jonathan Manson found theatrical intensity in Geminiani’s Cello Sonata in F Op.5 No.5, fluently traversing the expressive modes.  My own violin teacher used to praise Geminiani’s achievement, above his contemporaries, and Manson gave me no reason to doubt his arguments; and, Cohen and Dunford seemed to enjoy the drama that Manson brought to the music.  It reminded me of a prickly Marvell poem, both delighting in and denying Petrarchan conceits.  Truscott was in dignified company for Handel’s A major Op.1 No.3 sonata.  The final Allegro flew on a wind of optimism and joy.  Dunford added textures and expressive flourishes that I’d liked to have enjoyed as a young violinist exploring these sonatas – he really is a musical alchemist.  As was confirmed by his performance of Marais’ Les Voix Humaines in which he made the viol rhetoric very much his own – what wonderful integration of stillness and emotional surges: whispered wonderings of such private intensity and expressive honesty.  One barely dared to take a breath during Dunford’s exquisite elaborations.  I felt wrapped in a tender, if fragile, embrace.

An arrangement of Michael Praetorius’ ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ was a consoling – ‘just in time’, as Iestyn remarked – encore; but it was also quite fraught, as if we are willing such spiritual togetherness to be true and to unite us this year.  Brockes wrote, ‘With the unworried life, that the Creator gave us, we are peaceful and cheerful.’  Such sentiments seem, at present, far from our grasp.  But, musicians such as these bring them nearer.

Claire Seymour

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Arcangelo (Jonathan Cohen [harpsichord, organ], Thomas Dunford [lute], Jonathan Manson [cello], Matthew Truscott [violin])

Handel – Künft’ger Zeiten eitler Kummer HWV202, Die ihr aus dunklen Grüften HWV208; Geminiani – Cello Sonata in F Op.5 No.5; Handel – Süsse Stille, sanfter Quelle HWV205, Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken HWV204, Violin Sonata in A Op.1 No.3 HWV361, Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen HWV203, Singe, Seele, Gott zum Preise HWV206; Marais – Les Voix Humaines; Handel – Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden HWV210, In den angenehmen Büschen HWV209, Meine Seele hört im Sehen HWV207.

Wigmore Hall, London (live stream); Monday 14th December 2020.