04 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – YOUR TUNEFUL VOICE (Oratorio Arias) [Iestyn Davies, countertenor; VIVAT 105]

Georg Friedrich Händel - YOUR TUNEFUL VOICE (Iestyn Davies, countertenor; VIVAT 105)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Your Tuneful Voice – Oratorio AriasIestyn Davies, countertenor; Carolyn Sampson, soprano; The King’s Consort; Robert King [Recorded in the Menuhin Hall, Surrey, UK, 6 – 8 September 2013; VIVAT 105; 1CD, 67:23; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, PrestoClassical, and major music retailers]

It now seems extraordinary that, when the groundbreaking American singer Russell Oberlin recorded a programme of arias from Georg Friedrich Händel’s operas and oratorios for Deutsche Grammophon a half-century ago, doing so was radical. In those days, when stirrings of the Baroque Revival that would take Europe by storm by millennium’s end and the efforts of composers like Benjamin Britten were advancing their cause, Oberlin and Sir Alfred Deller were painstakingly liberating the countertenor and male alto voices from the murky confines of British cathedrals and chancel choirs and returning them to the operatic and concert stages, where—in Britain, at least—they shared glory with their castrati colleagues during the 18th Century. Until the gradual emergence of artists from other parts of the world increased their ranks, British singers—gifted musicians like James Bowman, Paul Esswood, and Michael Chance—headed the class of countertenors who endeavored to reclaim the firm place in mainstream musical life that their artistic ancestors enjoyed. Following the paths carved out of the wilderness by his forebears, York-born countertenor Iestyn Davies fuses the best of the British traditions to which he was exposed as a chorister and in his studies at the Royal Academy of Music with the unique sensibilities and knife’s-edge theatricality of a 21st-Century singer. More consequential even than his affinity for creating vivid, dramatically credible characters upon the operatic stage is the mesmerizing natural beauty of Mr. Davies’s voice, which among a crowded field of superb countertenors is exceptional. Each of Mr. Davies’s recordings has proved momentous, but Your Tuneful Voice, in which he sings arias and a pair of duets from Händel’s oratorios, is truly special. Had Mr. Davies summoned the shade of Händel to create a programme of arias to order he could not have enjoyed music more suited to his voice. Supported with undimmed brilliance of historically-informed performance practices by the King’s Consort and Robert King, Mr. Davies provides in Your Tuneful Voice one of the finest recitals of music from Händel’s oratorios ever committed to disc and a recording that documents matchless work by one of today’s most important young singers.

Framed by sprightly performances of the Overtures to Jephtha and Samson from the King’s Consort, Mr. Davies offers assured accounts of arias from an array of Händel’s oratorios that represent the full range of the composer’s efforts in the genre he did so much to popularize in Britain. He is joined by soprano Carolyn Sampson in performances of the duets ‘Welcome as the dawn of day’ from Solomon and ‘Who calls my parting soul from death’ from Esther. Interestingly, the alto rôles in these oratorios were split between the sexes, with Solomon having been created by a female contralto and Assuerus in Esther by the alto castrato Senesino. Mr. Davies recreates both parts captivatingly. In the resolute phrases of ‘Welcome as the dawn of day,’ Ms. Sampson’s vibrato occasionally obscures pitch, but the purer tone that she employs when singing in tandem with Mr. Davies is poised and lovely. In the stark ‘Who calls my parting soul from death,’ one of Händel’s most original inspirations, both Mr. Davies and Ms. Sampson sing dashingly. The opening string figurations recall any number of Vivaldi’s vocal and instrumental works, but the almost erotic intertwining of voices could have been devised by no composer but Händel. Ms. Sampson’s voice throbs with the ethereal chill of death, but Mr. Davies’s passionate repetitions of ‘Awake, my soul’ raise the temperature of the performance. Händel’s dissonant harmonies are delivered with pointed tone that makes their resolutions cathartic, and Mr. Davies and Ms. Sampson blend their timbres and vibratos with flawless finesse.

‘O sacred oracles of truth’ from Belshazzar, which Mr. Davies recently recorded in full with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, is voiced with great emotional directness, the expansive lines drawing from Mr. Davies tones of immense dignity that are cushioned by the sonorous, stylish playing of the chamber organ by Christopher Bucknall, who also provides the expert harpsichord continuo. A pair of arias from The Triumph of Time and Truth, ‘Mortals think that Time is sleeping’ and ‘On the valleys, dark and cheerless,’ present Mr. Davies with opportunities for wonderfully contrasted singing. In the first aria, the alto recorders are played with untroubled virtuosity by Rebecca Miles and Emma Murphy, and the alterations among harpsichord, organ, and theorbo—excellently played by Lynda Sayce—in the A and B sections of the da capo are intelligently managed. Mr. Davies’s sustained tones are gorgeous, and his mastery of the coloratura in the B section encompasses able efforts at the trills. His placement of tones in his upper register is exemplary, and his embellishment of the repeat of the A section heightens the beauty of Händel’s melodic lines—a rare accomplishment! ‘On the valleys, dark and cheerless’ is an example of Händel’s music at its simple best, and the focus of Mr. Davies’s singing across wide intervals and in the restless figures of the aria’s opening theme is impressive. Rachel Chaplin’s oboe obbligato effectively makes a duet of ‘Tune your harps to cheerful strains’ from Esther, in which Mr. Davies joins her in artfully sculpting phrases over the strings’ pizzicato. The strength of Mr. Davies’s lower register is put to the test, and his success is absolute.

‘Mighty love now calls to arm’ from Alexander Balus is an impassioned martial number with blaring trumpets. Mr. Davies’s delivery of coloratura has a bright edge, and he adopts a more overtly operatic vibrato that suits the extroverted nature of the music. The trumpet obbligato of Crispian Steele-Perkins makes a rousing effect in ‘Eternal source of light divine’ from Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, and the good-natured rivalry between voice and trumpet is brought off charmingly by both singer and trumpeter. Here and in all of the selections on Your Tuneful Voice Mr. Davies uses vowels with refinement, and his diction is refreshingly crisp. Only in the disc’s title track, ‘Your tuneful voice my tale will tell’ from Semele, is Mr. Davies’s ornamentation faintly ineffective, but interactions with Kati Debretzeni’s violin solo are terrific. Mr. Davies controls the aria’s descending scales with consummate skill, and he sings cadences with care to avoid stylistically inappropriate over-emoting. The King’s Consort strings create a sea upon which Mr. Davies’s voice floats hypnotically in ‘Yet can I hear that dulcet lay’ from The Choice of Hercules, and his sustained tones are rich but gossamer. ‘Thou shalt bring them in’ from Israel in Egypt inhabits the same musical world as ‘He shall feed His flock like a shepherd’ from Messiah, and Mr. Davies imbues his performance of the aria with riveting straight-toned singing and unhesitant attacks on top notes.

‘Up the dreadful steep ascending’ from Jephtha is a bracing number, and the precision of the strings’ articulation again establishes the aria’s dramatic profile with energy and vitality. Mr. Davies responds with conspicuously top-notch virtuosity. The disc ends in vigorous fashion with ‘How can I stay when love invites’ from Esther, which Mr. Davies sings with such sincerity that it never seems like a soulless pyrotechnical display. Mr. Bucknall’s playing of the harpsichord continuo is especially appreciable in this aria, and Mr. Davies again brings insightful emphasis to his resolutions of cadences, which he puts to subtle dramatic use.

Indeed, subtlety is the pillar upon which Mr. Davies’s artistry is balanced, and his singing on Your Tuneful Voice is a demonstration of the facility with which he maintains this balance of tenacity and technique. To borrow a phrase from Psalm 135, set to music by Händel in the ninth of his Chandos Anthems, Mr. Davies brings to his singing of the arias and duets on this disc precisely the ‘humble zeal’ that the music deserves, singing evenly and with virtually no discernible register breaks. Rather than ‘reimagining’ this music in some idiosyncratically self-serving way and thereby presuming to know better than Händel how to reach the hearts of listeners, Iestyn Davies sings the arias and duets included on Your Tuneful Voice with the repose that only a reliably levelheaded artist can devote to music of such difficulty. Without question, his is a supremely, consistently ‘tuneful voice,’ and Your Tune Voice is a disc that unpretentiously scales the highest peaks of Händelian singing.