It’s testimony to the extraordinary interest which counter-tenor Iestyn Davies now arouses that his weekday lunchtime recital was packed.
And for this final concert of Radio 3’s Wigmore season he’d chosen some fascinating rarities, plus new works from two of Britain’s up-and-coming composers.
The first of these, Stuart MacRae’s ‘The Lif[sic] of this world’, was intriguing. MacRae wanted his setting of this ineffably bleak poem – ‘The lif of this world/ is ruled with wind,/ weeping, drede,/ and steryinge’ - to be suitable for any voice-type, singable in any key, with or without instrumental accompaniment, so the latter is limited to a few punctuating chords. The text is in Middle English and the setting is modal: the result, as Davies delivered it, had a timeless Gaelic plangency. This led naturally on to the Gallic charm of the next work, Poulenc’s ‘Le bestiaire’, in which a dromedary, a goat, a grasshopper, and a crayfish were evoked. Sensitively supported by Julius Drake’s accompaniment, Davies characterised each song so persuasively that Poulenc’s hope that the cycle would have Schubertian gravity was triumphantly vindicated.
After a gnomic haiku-setting by the Icelandic composer Blaar Kindsdottir, it was time for some full-dress Faure in the form of his ‘Clair de lune’, which was followed by Joseph Phibbs’s ‘The Moon’s Funeral’ - a a masterly piece of word-setting, with Davies faithfully following the drifting ideas of Hilaire Belloc’s strange poem.
Then came the concert’s centre of gravity, with Dowland’s ‘In darkness let me dwell’ segueing into Mahler’s equally sepulchral ‘Um Mitternacht’. Here Davies was able to remind us of his pre-eminence both in the music of the Elizabethans and in late nineteenth-century Romanticism. Then – this was a cleverly-constructed programme – Vaughan Williams was brought centre-stage in an unusual guise, with his setting of Verlaine’s ‘Prison’ juxtaposed with that of Faure; in terms of musical quality there was little to choose between them.
It was entirely appropriate that for his encore Davies should sing Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’, which is both his calling-card and also the calling-card of the recently-retired James Bowman, whose spirit hovered benignly over this concert, in that two of its songs had been originally written for him. The opening phrase rang out with spine-tingling beauty; the final cadence set the seal on a perfect hour.