Tenor and Counter-tenor Voices Blend Perfectly during a Wigmore Hall Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Britten, Thomas Adès, Nico Muhly, Barber: Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Allan Clayton (tenor), James Baillieu (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 4.12.2015. (RB)

Purcell: Music for a While (arr. Tippett); Sweeter than Roses (real. Britten);
Full Fathom Five (real. Adès)
Britten: Canticle 1: My Beloved is Mine Op 40
Thomas Adès: The Lover in Winter
Britten: Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac Op 51
Nico Muhly: Lorne ys my liking (world première)
Barber: Three Songs Op 10
Arr. Nico Muhly: Four Traditional Songs
Britten: Folksong Arrangements
Purcell: Lost is my Quiet For Ever (real. Britten); Sound the Trumpet (real. Britten)

This was the second Wigmore concert in the space of a month to feature the acclaimed counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. Andreas Scholl shared a platform with Davies at a concert in November and this time it was the turn of tenor, Allan Clayton. The programme for this concert, devised by pianist James Baillieu, was an interesting mixture of original songs and duets, together with arrangements by 20th Century and contemporary English and American composers of songs and duets by Purcell

Davies and Ballieu opened with a selection of songs by Purcell starting with Tippett’s arrangement of Music for a While. The song comes from the play Oedipus by Dryden and Lee and the music is built on a ground bass. Davies used hardly any vibrato and he sang the aria with a rapt beauty of tone while Ballieu used flexible phrasing to bring out the lyricism of the accompaniment. Britten’s realisation of Sweeter than Roses was a subjective response to Purcell’s song rather than a recreation. Davies was highly responsive to the language and he demonstrated tremendous vocal agility towards the end of the song, keeping the lines exceptionally clean and the rhythms incisive. Davies concluded the Purcell selection with a forthright and well-focused account of Ariel’s song from The Tempest (the realisation was courtesy of Thomas Adès). Davies produced a bright clarion sound and I enjoyed the way he and Baillieu collaborated to create bell-like reverberations.

Clayton joined Ballieu next for the first of two Canticles by Britten entitled My Beloved is Mine. The text by Francis Quarles is a meditation on the Songs of Songs in the Old Testament and it has homoerotic overtones. I liked Ballieu’s pastoral tone painting in the opening section and the creation of fleeting sensations and feelings. Like Davies, Clayton kept vibrato to a minimum and he captured very well the rapture, caprice and sense of mystery in this extraordinary dramatic narrative. Davies returned to the stage for Thomas Adès’ The Lover in Winter which is the composer’s first published composition. It uses a selection of stanzas from a medieval Latin love poem which contrasts a cold, hard landscape with the fire of love. This was a hypnotic, compelling account by Davies and Ballieu which took us on a journey through the barren wastelands of the opening stanzas to the kindling of love and the sense of oblivion that one finds in romantic ardour.

The first half concluded with Britten’s second Canticle, Abraham and Isaac which is a setting of a 15th Century Chester Mystery Play. The work was written shortly after Billy Budd and is a kind of mini-opera which explores the harrowing events depicted in the Bible story. Davies, Clayton and Ballieu gave a powerful and dramatic account of the work and for me this was the performance of the evening. Davies and Clayton turned away from the audience for the opening stanza and their voices blended perfectly to create a mystical ethereal beauty as we heard the voice of God instructing Abraham to sacrifice his son. The singers did a superb job characterising their respective roles with Clayton giving us a conflicted, heartbroken and uncomprehending Abraham and Davies showing us the sweetness and terrified pleading of Isaac (‘Put up your sword….For I am but a child’).

The second half opened with a world première by the American composer, Nico Muhly. Lorne ys my liking is a setting of a Chester Mystery Play which imagines some of the women at Jesus’ tomb and it takes its inspiration from Abraham and Isaac. Once again Davies and Clayton blended perfectly to create an aura of religious mysticism and there was some deft interweaving of the vocal lines. There were some startling interjections on the piano at the beginning which did not entirely work for me but there seemed to be a much better equilibrium between the singers and accompanist towards the end of the piece and the work concluded with both singers playing the piano on either side of Baillieu. There was much to admire here but I did not feel the piece was in the same league as the Britten and I did not find the piano accompaniment entirely satisfactory.

Clayton and Ballieu presented Barber’s Three Songs from Op 10 next. These are settings of three poems from James Joyce’s Chamber Music which chart the progression of a love affair. Clayton showed us a richer array of vocal timbres in this short cycle and a wider range of dynamics with his voice filling the hall at one point. Baillieu gave us some gorgeous iridescent modulations at the beginning of the first song and imaginative tone painting in the final song.

The contrast between Muhly and Britten continued with Davies presenting four traditional songs arranged by the former and Clayton four folk song arrangements from the latter. Davies’ a cappella singing was impressive and I found his account of Muhly’s A cruel mother particularly compelling. Clayton brought a lightness of touch and humour to the Britten settings and I found the rendition of The Plough boy absolutely delightful. The concert concluded with Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s Sound the Trumpet: both singers sang with gusto and vied well with each other while Baillieu summoned Baroque orchestral sonorities from his Steinway.

The Wigmore audience responded with warm and enthusiastic applause and the singers treated us to a comic rendition of The Deaf Woman’s Courtship as an encore where we heard Clayton singing in falsetto and Davies in full voice before the singers swapped roles. Superb performances all round.

Robert Beattie

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