Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall, in Vivaldi’s Griselda, and in Handel’s Messiah: A Review & Artist Overview

By  | September 2, 2011 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Recordings, Reviews

Countertenor Iestyn Davies. Photo Credit: Marco Borggreve.

This summer, I was in one of the last great record stores in North America, (Manhattan’s Academy Records) and I came across both the Iestyn Davies 2009 recital at Wigmore Hall AND the 2009 Stephen Layton/Polyphony Messiah with Davies as alto soloist.  Earlier in that same visit to NY, the publicist for the sexy French record label Naïve gifted me the 2006 release of Vivaldi’s Griselda, boasting a freshman Iestyn Davies in the bit-role of Corrado. Either Handel on his heavenly throne was guiding me to listen to Davies, or I am easy prey for the marketing strategists behind this rising star countertenor.

The  two Corrado arias, the first a rage aria, the second a formulaic “love is a bird” aria (see videos to the left) show Davies’ voice to be very capable of  legato coloratura with a bright, appealing sound. However, he gets left in the dust by the principles in the cast, among them Philippe Jaroussky, Veronica Cangemi and Simone Kermes.  Who can be blamed for forgetting Davies’ musing about a swallow flying far from its nest when the very next aria is Cangemi pwning Agitata da due venti? Too much personality and nonchalant vocal pyrotechnics for the former St. John’s College treble soloist. Not his fault.

The Polyphony Messiah is a good one.  All of the soloists and the conductor are British, and a glance at the names on the Polyphony roster suggests that the choristers are British too.  With an orchestra called the Britten Sinfonia, it is fair to say that Davies is among compatriots and that among them, he is easily the star. This is the atmosphere and the repertoire that distinguishes him.  Davies’ English diction is clear enough to invite comparisons with Jaroussky singing mélodies in French or Christoph Prégardien singing Schubert lieder; Davies’ command over vocal registration so masterful that he sometimes sounds like a haute-contre who can magically pluck a high Db out of the air without changing his tone quality.  While there is no menacing sound to add drama to “For he is like a refiner’s fire” the ornamentation and passage-work are exciting enough to get me to stop singing along and listen for a change.   Without reluctance, I offer Mr. Davies’ “He was despised” as one of the most touching and authentic ever recorded. I include the McGegan version sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the comparison. This is the recording that piqued my curiosity about Iestyn Davies’ story; a little digging around on the internet revealed a formidable English publicity machine supporting him.

Born in 1979, Davies studied piano and recorder at an early age and by the age of eight was already admitted to the choir at St. John’s College, Cambridge.  As a treble soloist, he was selected by the late Richard Hickox to sing Cupid on an all-star British recording of Purcell’s Timon of Athens.  He studied oboe at Wells Cathedral School, and at the age of fourteen his voice broke. The interviews and micro-biographies found on the web always point out his humility and “oh-gosh” surprise that anybody would care for his countertenor voice, which was born out of nostalgia for his glory days of singing in choirs.  Eventually his countertenor voice would lead him back to St. John’s, Cambridge as a choral scholar, then to the Royal Academy.  The rest is, as they say, history: choral solos–>an operatic break–>oratorio soloist–>Audience Prize at the 2004 Handel Competition…  In a nutshell, Davies had a classic English musical upbringing, has been a singer for most of is life, and a musician for all of it. You can read more about him here.

Davies appears to be countertenor-in-redsidence at Wigmore Hall; his June 6, 2009 recital there (the first of three solo recitals he has sung at Wigmore Hall) was released under the Wigmore Hall Live label.  It is the only recording featuring just him, although next month Hyperion will release a second solo recording  (Porpora cantatas).  Since Davies maintains in his several interviews that his focus as an artist is on the core 17th and 18th century composers (as opposed to singers like David Daniels or Jaroussky who have successfully ventured away from that repertory like a swallow from its nest), I expected the Wigmore recital to be the real gem amongst my growing library of his recordings.

Sadly, it is not.  All of Davies’ vocal gifts are on display throughout the recital, but as a disc to enjoy from start to finish it is lacking in charisma.  Davies does himself no favors by choosing such a dry program:  a Buxtehude cantata, a Purcell elegy, a Blow ironic elegy, and the nine German arias of Handel.  These are all selections that individually give much pleasure, but collectively make one long for a Britten folksong arrangement.  Even the musical joke, Blow’s satirical elegy “As on his deathbed gasping Strephon lay” came off as milquetoast.

Could it be that I am not a big a fan of baroque music as I claim to be?  I listened to this recital three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  Those nine German arias (transposed down for Davies) were not written to be performed like a song cycle, were they? They contain so many melodic fragments that Handel would use in Giulio Cesare,  Tamerlano, Judas Maccabaeus, and L’Allegro, that I usually have fun trying to identify where Handel copied himself.  I flipped over to my favorite version of these, Dorothea Röschmann in 2000 with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin to remind myself that I DID like these arias.  Röschmann is just so much more joyful and flashy, and definitely more flamboyant in her ornamentation.

Iestyn Davies singing Handel’s German Aria No.2 ”Das zitternde Glänzen”
Listen to Das zitternde Glänzen

Dorothea Röschmann singing Handel’s German Aria No.2 ”Das zitternde Glänzen” with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

I can already hear the Fandel scholars rebuking me, because Davies’ meditative approach is more in keeping with the intimate, contemplative nature of the religious poetry of Heinrich Brockes.  I don’t care. If it is boring, it is boring.

Davies does a fine enough job with the myriad technical demands of these chamber arias. The poised phrasing, the admirable breath control, the coloratura licks, the ravishing tone quality, the smoothed over register breaks, the deadly accurate intonation (this is a live recording!), and the crisp consonants are all in play.  He is an amazing singer; this recording is just all a little sleepy.

I hope this is a rite-of-passage-event in what is otherwise a very promising career.  I like Mr. Davies’ singing very much on that 2009 Messiah. I will soon take the time to watch his Ottone against Danielle DeNiese’s Poppea from the 2008 Glyndebourne production, however, I might not take the bait and seek out those Porpora cantatas.  I am excited to see what the future holds for Mr. Davies, but at this point I have less invested in him than Wigmore and England do.

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Described as "superbly styish" by the Chicago Tribune, tenor Oliver Camacho specializes in baroque repertoire, melodie, and the lieder of Schubert and Schumann. Based in Chicago, Mr. Camacho is the founder and artistic director of The Opera Company and the co-host of the acclaimed OperaNow Podcast.