Sunday, 16 January 2011

Countertenorism alert

The counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, hair slightly awry like an unkempt schoolboy, gives the champagne concert to mark ten years since the current, young Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly took over. The place is packed. Davies begins his entirely Italian programme with Ferrari’s Voglio di vita uscir (I want to exit life), which is an odd sentiment to open the evening. Of course, it shows off Davies’ rich low register over a toiling ground bass, the repeated phrase suggesting the passing years, and allows him to ornament outrageously, as he does with a biting, pain-is-pleasure dissonance on incrudelir (torture).

Davies’ voice is both beefily masculine and comfortingly warm. He soothes the hall with Kapsberger’s rocking lullaby Figlio dormir (Sleep, son). His top notes sound effortless at any volume and his taste in ornamentation is impeccable. He throws out melismas with a Bowmanesque head-jerk in Ferrari’s Questi pungenti (Those pricking), and holds us spellbound in Merula’s Canzonetta spirituale (Sacred song) with his extemporised phrases over the beautifully incessant two-note nagging accompaniment. Harpsichordist Richard Egarr, his tinkling hands buried in the red and gold box, looks as relaxed as a busker. He plays several interludes, none more tuneful than Handel’s Suite in D minor, its Air with Variations ringing into the night.

Davies discards the unwelcome music stand after the fizz-filled interval. He almost yodels the leaps in Porpora’s dramatic cantata Oh se fosse (Oh if only) and nods loosely but emphatically through the crowd-haranguing recitatives. His runs skid momentarily as he tires in Vivaldi’s Pianti sospiri – weeping sighing, but he carries the audience with him into its thunderous applause. He encores first with Handel’s Furibondo from Partenope but it is more a light breeze than a howling tempest, but second with the Irish folksong She moves through the Fair in honour of the Director. It was Davies’ most ardent and beautiful singing of the evening.