A Twenty-First-Century English Orpheus with a Lutist Makes Music at Carnegie Hall

19/05/2019

Various Composers: Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Thomas Dunford (lute), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 16.5.2019. (RP)

Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Thomas Dunford (lute) © Pete Checchia

Purcell – ‘Lord, what is man?’, ‘Sweeter than roses’ (Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country), ‘Music for a while’ (Oedipus, King of Thebes), ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’, ‘An Evening Hymn’
Marais – ‘Les voix humaines’ (Pièces de viole Book II No.63)
Visée – Chaconne in D minor (Pièces de théorbe et de luth)
Handel – ‘Ombra cara’ (Radamisto), ‘Hendel, non può mia musa’, ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ (Saul)
Dowland – ‘Praeludium’, ‘A Dream’, ‘Behold a wonder here’, ‘Flow, my tears, fall from your springs’, ‘Can she excuse my wrongs?’, ‘Lachrimae’, ‘The Frog Galliard’, ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’
Bach – Cello Suite No.1 in G major (arr. T. Dunford)

Just getting to Carnegie Hall was an adventure for this joint recital by countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutist Thomas Dunford: a presidential motorcade had snarled traffic in Midtown Manhattan. Such is life in New York City. Davies seems particularly attuned to the city and the foibles of its concert- and theatergoers, probably because he has spent a good deal of time here recently, performing on Broadway, at the Metropolitan Opera and, of course, in Carnegie Hall.

In introducing their first encore, Vaughan Williams’s lovely ‘Orpheus with his Lute’, Davies remarked how challenging it is to find quietude in New York, even in theaters and concert halls. As if on cue, the rumbling of the subway could be heard in subterranean Zankel Hall. Turning to manmade disturbances, he sympathetically observed that everyone occasionally forgets to turn off a smartphone. (From my vantage point this lapse was extraordinary as the person rooted for the phone in a bag and then frantically ran out of the hall with it still ringing.) Davies added that the frequent bouts of coughing likewise do not bother him: they just demonstrate that people are trying to breathe.

It’s not the few distractions at this concert that I remember most vividly, however, but rather those extended periods when stillness prevailed in the hall and it seemed as if the audience collectively held its breath. The essence of the music performed by Davies and Dunford demanded such concentration to be truly appreciated. To savor their musicianship, it was essential.

Davies programmed songs and arias by Dowland, Purcell and Handel, all proclaimed as an Orpheus in their day. Handel’s story in this regard is particularly amusing, even if it proved embarrassing to the young composer at the time. During his stay in Rome, an arts-loving cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church penned a poem anointing the 23-year-old German composer as his muse, whose talents far surpassed those of Orpheus. Given that he was a great patron of the arts, Handel thought it best to indulge the man and set the verses into the short, cheerful cantata, ‘Hendel, non può mia musa’.

The pristine nature of Davies’s voice, refined musicianship and extraordinary attention to text were brought to bear on every note that he sang. In Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’, each repetition of the word ‘drop’ was articulated distinctly and differently, as if snakes of all sizes were falling from the Fury Alecto’s head. In Dowland’s ‘Flow, my tears, fall from your springs’, his voice was haunting and hollow as he sang of those who dwell in darkness.

Naturally, there were gracefully executed melismas and ornamentation throughout, but Davies eschewed the heroic. The occasional fortes, as in Dowland’s ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’ when he sang of dying, always caught me by surprise. ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ from Handel’s oratorio Saul was notable for the warmth of Davies’s voice and his stately delivery. For beauty of tone, however, Purcell’s ‘Sweeter than roses’ was matchless

Interspersed between the vocal selections, Dunford performed solo works on the lute, with Dowland’s featuring prominently. The loveliest sounds were in the English composer’s ‘A Dream’, while Dunford interjected humor into ‘The Frog Galliard’ by puffing his cheeks and making faces during the final measures.

In introducing his instrument, the archlute, to the audience, Dunford spoke of Robert de Visée, a lutenist whose playing was so beautiful that Louis XIV frequently summoned Visée to lull him to sleep. In the Chaconne in D minor, Dunford captured the elegance of the music and also displayed his own subtle, sophisticated virtuosity in the intricate variations on its gracious theme.

In the second half of the program, the vocal pieces alternated with movements from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1, arranged by Dunford for the lute. In the Handel arias, the lighter sound changed the nature of the pieces, placing even greater emphasis on the voice than originally intended. In the Bach, however, the switch made little difference; the sacrifice of the cello’s gutsier sound was more than compensated for by Dunford’s artistry.

This was a well-conceived program, including its close. The Hallelujahs of the final song, Purcell’s ‘An Evening Hymn’, were a soothing benediction on the day that was drawing to a close. Then, after the Vaughan Williams encore, came ‘Tears in Heaven’ by Eric Clapton and Will Jennings. Written after the tragic death of Clapton’s four-year-old son, the song expresses fathomless grief, wonder and hope. As with every piece that Davies and Dunford performed, it was distilled to its crystalline essence.

Rick Perdian

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