Iestyn’s unearthly oddness
The sees at Kings Place
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 (ticketmaster.co.uk), 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