Triumphant Purcell (and More) from Iestyn Davies

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Humfrey, Tomkins, Blow, Matteis: Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Réjouissance [Simon Jones (violin), Andrea Jones (violin), Lucy Theo (viola), Jonathan Cohen (cello, harpsichord, organ), David Miller (lutes)]. Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 21.02.2013. (GPu)

Henry Purcell: Fairest Isle (from King Arthur)
Here the Deities Approve (from Welcome All the Pleasures)
Pelham Humfrey: A Hymne to God the Father
Thomas Tomkins: A Sad Pavan: For these Distracted Times
Henry Purcell:If Music Be The Food of Love
Crowne the Altar
John Blow: Poor Celadon
Nicola Matteis: A Suite after the Italian Manner
Henry Purcell: O Solitude

Iestyn Davies is, quite simply, one of the very finest countertenors I have heard in many a year. His interpretations are quite without the mannered and artificial qualities that characterise the work of many countertenors; indeed, ‘natural’ is one of the first adjectives that springs to mind on hearing him. His singing has real delicacy and tenderness, supported by a great underlying strength and security. His beauty of tone seems always at the service of musical expression, rather than an object of self-indulgence. Add to this remarkable certainty of pitch and impressive clarity of diction and one has most of the qualities one could desire in a singer.

The programme of his splendid recital on this occasion (supported by the fine instrumental ensemble Réjouissance (led by Simon Jones) had, as can be seen above, the work of Henry Purcell at its core, largely surrounded by the works of his contemporaries. One exception to this was provided by the remarkable Sad Pavan: For these Distracted Times by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), who died three years before Purcell’s birth. The beautiful Pavan (here well-played by Réjouissance) was written in February 1649, weeks after the execution of Charles I. (Tomkins had been responsible for the music at his coronation). Yet, though this Pavan was the chronological ‘oddity’ in the programme, there is a sense in which it provides a key to Purcell’s music. Tomkins’ piece is a direct and explicit response to the political and (to Tomkins) moral upheavals surrounding him, Purcell’s entire output was conditioned by the ‘distracted’ times in which he lived and worked; even if his musical response was more oblique and implicit, it is audible in all his finest work. When, for example, in t’Fairest Isle (which opened Iestyn Davies’ programme) the music which he wrote in setting Dryden’s text for King Arthur, or the British Worthy speaks of far more than the convenient flattery that the words might seem to imply:


Fairest isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasure and of love
Venus here will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian grove.
Cupid from his fav’rite nation
Care and envy will remove;
Jealousy, that poisons passion,
And despair, that dies for love.

Gentle murmurs, sweet complaining,
Sighs that blow the fire of love
Soft repulses, kind disdaining,
Shall be all the pains you prove.
Ev’ry swain shall pay his duty,
Grateful ev’ry nymph shall prove;
And as these excel in beauty,
Those shall be renown’d for love.

What Purcell imparts to these relatively formulaic sentiments in setting them is a vision of an ideal Albion, both in the past. (The work was prepared after James II had been overthrown in the revolution of 1688.) Purcell’s music makes one hear both the sense of loss which poet and composer felt after the death of Charles II in 1685 and articulates a possible alternative to the turbulent and challenging years in which it was written. This is Utopian music rather mere panegyric.

It is important to remember that it was originally written for the theatre; it was first performed at the Queen’s Theatre in Dorset Garden, in May 1691. Though bound up with the present ‘state of England’ the resonances of the song are not merely parochial. Rather, as Charles Burney, wrote ‘It is of all ages and all countries’. Much of the song’s grandeur of range and reference emerged, unforcedly in Davies’s beautiful performance. In the song which followed, ‘Here the Deities Approve’, many of the same considerations are relevant. It was originally part of ‘Welcome to All the Pleasures’, an ode written to celebrate Charles II’s safe return to London after a fortunate escape from the Rye House plotters who had planned to assassinate him as he came back to the capital after attending the races at Newmarket. Music extends its blessing as evidence of Charles’s preservation by the divine:

Here the Deities approve,
The God of Musick and of Love,
All the Talents they have lent you,
All the Blessings they have sent you,
Pleas’d to see what they be-stow,
Live and thrive so well below..

Purcell’s melodic line is exquisite and Iestyn Davies did full justice to it. The delay before the applause after the final cadences of the piece seemed to speak of an audience entranced by a spell it was reluctant to break.

A very different kind of power is at the heart of Pelham Humfrey’s ‘Hymne to God the Father’, a setting of a moving text by Donne, which fuses personal passion with theology in its evocation of the sinner’s self-awareness and his movements towards a degree of confidence in his salvation. Donne didn’t altogether like the idea of his poems being set to music, if his secular poem ‘The Triple Foole’ can be relied upon. There he complains that after he has sought to control and ‘allay’ his emotional suffering ‘through rhyme’s vexation’ then

Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain
And by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain

But if Donne had been able to hear Humfreys’ fine and poignant setting (sung as well as on this occasion) he might, surely, have reconsidered his objections. Heard in as fine a performance as this, Humfrey’s ‘Hymne’ reminds one of what a loss English music suffered in the composer’s early death (he died in 1674 aged just 27).

Though Iestyn Davies (accompanied by lute and harpsichord alone) brought out the full Italianate subtlety of Purcell’s ‘If Music be the Food of Love’) even so good a performance could not disguise the banality of its text by one Colonel Henry Hevingham (“Your eyes, your mien, your tongue declare / That you are music ev’rywhere”). This, I’m afraid, is one of those songs where the text is best ignored.

Much the same is probably true of John Blow’s ‘Poor Celadon’. The anonymity of the poet is perhaps fortunate, the lines being tritely artificial in their third-person statement of the unavailing nature of love directed towards a social superior;

Poor Celadon, he sighs in vain;
The fair Euginia must not love,
Nor has a shepherd reason to complain
When tow’ring thoughts his ruin prove.

But Celadon his stars will often blame
With all the passion of the mind and tongue.
Complaining words and notes increase his flame;
Thy nymph won’t see it,
but commends the song.

Alas, ’tis plain what crosses still his fate;
What, can a verse or note avail?
Birth, fortune are as hills of greatest height;
They overlook a lowly dale.

It is remarkable, indeed, that John Blow’s inventiveness was not entirely inhibited by such rubbish. In fact it is a sophisticated piece of work, not least harmonically and gives to Celadon’s sufferings an intensity not inherent in the anonymous poet’s words.

The most substantial instrumental work included in this lunchtime concert was the suite by the Italian Nicola Matteis, virtuoso violinist and composer, who was active in London in the 1670s and 1680s, and whose music Purcell had surely heard. The four movements of this particular suite, edited by Simon Jones and played by the violins, viola, harpsichord and lute moved from the elegant gravity of the first movement to the vibrant dance rhythms of the second and the fourth, the third being an expressive slow movement. In the solo violin part of the opening movement Simon Jones brought out the lyrical force of Matteis’s writing. I hope that Mr. Jones will forgive me if, fine though his playing was, I can’t quite equal the rapture expressed by John Evelyn in his diary, after he first heard Matteis play on December 19th 1674: “I heard that stupendious Violin Signor Nicholao … whom certainly never mortal man exceeded on that Instrument: he had a stroak so sweete, and made its speake like the Voice of a Man … he did wonders upon a note … he seem’d to be spiritato’d & plaied such ravishing things on a ground as astonish’d us all”.

To return to Purcell and to Iestyn Davies. In ‘Crowne the Altar’, with its brief text by Nahum Tate (Crown the Altar, deck the Shrine; / Behold the Bright Seraphick throng / Prepare our Harmony to join) and originally part of the 1694 Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, Purcell’s ability to invest public ceremony with a significance beyond the merely human and with a power far greater than the obsequious compliment that typified so much work of this kind (in printed text or musical composition) ensures that one ‘believes’ sentiments which might otherwise seem the absurdly fanciful. Once again the music altogether transcends its ‘occasion’, especially when sung with Iestyn Davies’s tonal beauty and strength. ‘O Solitude, sets a poem by Kathrerine Philips itself based on a text by the French poet, Saint-Amant. The nature of Purcell’s superb setting has been well described by Ian Spink (English Song: Dowland to Purcell, 1974): “It has the broad sweep of the finest Italian bel canto of the mid-century, yet Purcell’s own affective power. Chromaticism or abstruse harmony is absent, but a wide-leaping line and irregularity of phrase suggest the disturbance of the soul seeking solitude …In all the bass repeats 128 times and remains in C minor throughout, yet one is not conscious of any lack of variety in the harmonic treatment, because the phrase effect of the vocal line is so wonderfully free, both in itself and in relation to the ground”. If a single song could finally be given such an honour, it is tempting to say that it was with this setting that the English song of the Seventeenth Century attained its full maturity. As such it made a perfect conclusion to this triumphant recital. As I left the hall I overheard members of the audience praising Iestyn Davies and, in one or two cases, remarking on how valuable and exhilarating such a reminder of Purcell’s greatness was. I wholeheartedly endorse both (interrelated) sentiments.

Glyn Pursglove