In the select world of countertenors, there’s always one who sets the pace.
In the beginning, back in the Fifties, there was the ethereal Alfred Deller, who yielded to the vocally more robust James Bowman. Next up was Bowman’s German pupil Andreas Scholl, whose perfect timbre ravished everyone, but the lush sound of the American singer David Daniels proved to have more crowd-appeal. For the last few years the field has grown exponentially, with no outright leader. But on the evidence of the last 18 months, I suggest that in Iestyn Davies we have the new countertenor king-in-waiting.
Davies may be built like a whippet, but, as we’ve seen with his performances at English National Opera, he has that mysterious quality of always drawing the eye (and ear) when sharing the stage with others. When he has it to himself, he’s mesmerising, so it made good sense for the final Chamber Prom to be largely devoted to him, supported by tenor Simon Wall, and musicians of the Academy of Ancient Music led by Richard Egarr at the harpsichord. The programme was wall-to-wall Purcell, plus the long lament on Purcell’s early death by John Blow, who both gave Purcell his job, and took it sadly back again when Purcell passed on.
First Davies sang ‘Tis Nature’s Voice’ from ‘Hail Bright Cecilia’. His intimate and confidential manner seemed designed to set off the music’s highly-ornamented melismas; as he sang his voice in, his sound developed a compelling power, particularly in the lower register. Then came ‘Music for a while’, which might have evoked memories of Bowman, had the sound not been so utterly different. Perfectly paced, and phrased as befitting a poem which is just one single sustained thought, this was a piece of high vocal artistry, as was ‘Sweeter than roses’ which followed. There’s steel in his sound, and not a trace of the femininity you hear in Daniels’s; Davies has gravity, unaffected directness, and that rare ability to bring a note seemingly out of nowhere, and make it sing. But he still sounds boyish and vulnerable: it will be fascinating to see how he develops over the next few years.
The AAM musicians played beautifully, but Egarr’s pacing was wrong, keeping such a brisk momentum that no song was surrounded by the silence it needed in which to breathe.