Iestyn’s un­earthly odd­ness

The sees at Kings Place

The Sunday Telegraph - - Arts - In Win­ter,

This con­cert wasn’t quite what it seemed. It was billed as one of the fi­nal events in Kings Place’s se­ries Time Un­wrapped, a year-long sur­vey of the way com­posers have ex­plored time. There was Thomas Adès’s string quar­tet The Four Quar­ters, a set of quick­sil­ver, dart­ing evo­ca­tions of dif­fer­ent times of day. There was a lux­u­ri­antly sad, re­signed song about the de­sire for obliv­ion from Brahms, and John Dow­land’s beau­ti­ful song Time Stands Still. There was even a song about the dis­cov­ery of Richard III’s bones un­der a car-park in Le­ices­ter, where the long-dead king en­tered time and his­tory once again.

It soon be­came clear, how­ever, that the real fo­cus of the evening was Iestyn Davies, cur­rent star of the counter-tenor voice. The re­vival of this strange, an­drog­y­nous sound, pro­duced when a male singer sings in head voice or falsetto, has been one of the more sur­pris­ing trends in post-war clas­si­cal mu­sic. It was bound up with the re­vival of so-called “early mu­sic”, mean­ing mu­sic from the Re­nais­sance and Baroque eras when this voice-type – or some­thing like it – was pop­u­lar.

In Baroque opera, the role of the hero was of­ten taken by cas­trati, singers who were cas­trated as boys and de­vel­oped bar­rel chests and pow­er­ful high voices as a re­sult. The pi­o­neer of the re­vival of the high male voice was Al­fred Deller, who in the mid-20th cen­tury brought the songs of Dow­land and Weelkes out of the shad­ows. Not every­one liked it. There’s a story that when a French woman heard Deller sing, she ex­claimed that he must be “eu­nuque” (a eu­nuch). In later decades the counter-tenor be­came nor­malised, and the stars of the voice-type, like Michael Chance and An­dreas Scholl, be­came faces on the con­cert cir­cuit.

But as this con­cert showed, the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of the counter-tenor can only go so far; an un­earthly odd­ness is the se­cret of its ap­peal. Iestyn Davies would like to dis­prove that, hence he’s taken to singing the great mas­ter­works of ro­man­tic song. We had one such song here, in the shape of Brahms’s song Gestillte Sehn­sucht (As­suaged Long­ing). Davies strove to make the song vi­brate with pas­sion­ate long­ing and re­signed dig­nity, the vi­ola of Hélène Clé­ment keen­ing away be­low him like the en­twined voice of the lover. But I kept think­ing – oh for a con­tralto voice, where the en­tire vo­cal chord vi­brates in­stead of just its thin mar­gins.

In the other, more “mag­i­cal” vo­cal num­bers, Davies’s art came into its own. The first of them was The Lover

a set of songs com­posed back in 1989 by the 18-year-old Thomas Adès; the mu­sic was like a frag­ile tin­kle of ici­cles, through which Davies’s voice shone like a wan shaft of win­ter sun­light. More dra­matic was Old Bones, an evo­ca­tion by Amer­i­can com­poser Nico Muhly of the feel­ings stirred by the dis­cov­ery of Richard III’s re­mains. Muhly com­piled a text which flit­ted be­tween a medieval view of the scene and a con­tem­po­rary his­to­rian’s, and his mu­sic for a vaguely Re­nais­sance-sound­ing en­sem­ble of strings and harp was sim­i­larly ag­ile, set­tling some­times into a ghostly pro­ces­sional flavoured with ce­leste, then leap­ing again into ner­vous move­ment.

That am­bigu­ous tem­po­ral­ity came back in Muhly’s purely in­stru­men­tal piece Mo­tion, where the stately coun­ter­point of a 17th-cen­tury an­them by Or­lando Gib­bons peeped now and then through Muhly’s louche down­town New York har­monies. In his ar­range­ment of John Dow­land’s beau­ti­ful song Time Stands Still, Muhly was more mod­est, adding a touch of sil­very strange­ness to Dow­land’s orig­i­nal.

It all fit­ted so well: Davies’s un­earthly voice, Dow­land’s gravely har­monies, Muhly’s way of giv­ing an alien glow to some­thing old. I felt the shock of real feel­ing. But it was a rare mo­ment of truth in a con­cert that over­all traded too much in elu­sive­ness, as if it were all sprin­kled in fairy dust. Well be­fore the end, I found my­self long­ing for some real emo­tional and mu­si­cal weight. young mod – and he can still squeeze into the tight trousers of his Do Ya Think I’m Sexy glory days. Al­ways fan­tas­tic live, Ste­wart still per­forms like he just loves to sing.

Ash­ton Gate, Bris­tol, May 22 (tick­et­mas­, and tour­ing – may have made him an odd-man-out among the Post-Im­pres­sion­ists, but there’s noth­ing dif­fi­cult or ob­scure about his shim­mer­ing scenes of do­mes­tic life on the Cote d’Azur. If Bon­nard can be po­si­tioned al­most ex­actly be­tween Monet and Matisse in terms of age, in­ter­ests and the sen­sual im­pact of his work, then his first ma­jor Bri­tish show in two decades is, by that reck­on­ing, pretty much guar­an­teed to be one of the pop­u­lar suc­cesses of the year.

Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies per­forms with The English Con­cert in Han­del’s Ri­naldo, top; counter-tenor An­dreas Scholl, right, and com­poser John Dow­land, above

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