Review – Arias For Guadagni
Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen
Guadagni was one of the most famous – or infamous – castrati of the Eighteenth Century and his career included close association with composers from Handel to Hasse and Gluck who’s Orfeo ed Euridice he championed.
After a shaky start his musical career blossomed and Charles Burney referred to him at least twice. In 1755 when he was in London he remarked on his “full and well-toned voice” and later when visiting Padua – where Guadagni later settled – he remarked that he was “for taste, expression, figure, and action … at the head of his profession”.
And these two descriptions could be similarly ascribed to Iestyn Davies. In the year that we are celebrating – even if it is in rather muted fashion – the centenary of the birth of Alfred Deller, the first great countertenor, it is only fitting that the Iestyn Davies’ talent is being fully recognised and his star is in the ascendant.
And among the numerous countertenors on the stage today it is refreshing that he hasn’t been subjugated by marketing but has focused on musicianship and intelligent performance.
That is not to say that his colleagues are not accomplished for the most part but in a sense Davies has more in common with Andreas Scholl’s scholarly and measured manner than his other European counterparts.
And the similarities in the timbre and the shape of their voices can’t be denied in my opinion. As well as seamless legato they both posses an evenness of tone throughout their range and a bell-like upper register without any sense of the harshness of their colleagues. There is something slightly more metallic and angular in the vocal timbres of a countertenor like Jaroussky or Cencic and to a certain extend Valer Barna-Sabadus but that is not to say that they are unattractive. They are simply the flip side of a vocal type that I do enjoy.
But Iestyn Davies is in an entirely different league. An intelligent performer, he has an incredible grasp of technique married with a faultless sense of interpretation.
I have seen and enjoyed Davies’ numerous stage performances over the years. Those that come most readily to mind are his performance as Creonte in Steffani’s Niobe at Covent Garden, a wonderful and poignant production, and his numerous roles for ENO including a beautiful performance in Mark Morris’ King Arthur, as Armindo in Partenope, and his magnificent Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And this recital disc, of arias written for the famous castrato Gaetano Guadagni, is simply brilliant and he is more than ably supported with a mix of gusto and delicacy by Jonathan Cohen and the players of Arcangelo.
From the hushed opening of O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless to the closing aria on the disc composed by Guadagni himself, Davies’ musicianship and simple enjoyment of the arias he sings is manifest. All combined with crystal diction effortless technique.
His Handel is unsurpassed. The purity and control of the vocal line combined with the dignity he imbues in the embellishments in the opening aria from Solomon sets the standard for the entire disc. And The Raptur’d Soul from Theodora has a true sense of rhythmic alertness in the triplet flourishes combined with real fluid legato. And – as I have said before – how refreshing not to have the da capo too heavily ornamented.
Yet, Can I Hear That Dulcet Lay, from The Choice of Hercules is exquisite and sadly so rarely heard and again plays to the strengths of Davies technique as he spins out the gentle coloratura with complete ease.
However the ‘Handel highlight’ of the disc is the magnificently martial Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar. Davies flings out the divisions with abandon and is brilliantly supported by bright yet light playing from the players and in particularly the crisply articulated brass. Whole I thought Marie Nicole Lemieux was enjoyable this Iestyn Davies’ rendition is stellar.
Hasse is a countertenor’s dream and quite rightly as he wrote some of his most beautiful music for castrati. Like Barna-Sabadus he opts for a selection from Didone Abbandonata but not the same arias.
Ah, Che dissi! … Se Resto Sul Lido with its accompagnato and then unexpected slow opening vocal section is a real gallant gem with the tempo changes expertly handled by both singer and orchestra. And Davies never makes the short declamatory phrase sound clipped or snatched as might be expected. And again he avoids the temptation to over-ornament in the returning opening section.
The martial returns with Odi Colà La Frigia Tomba? … A Triofar Mi Chiama with its impressive horn playing and Lombardy snaps and also give ample opportunity to enjoy the breadth of Davies vocal range and especially the bell-like upper notes I referred to earlier.
Guadagni didn’t not only sing Handel roles when he was in London and Davies includes two arias by English composers. The first is from JC Smith’s The Fairies Say, Lovely Dream and the second is from Thomas Arne’s Alfred, Vengeance, Oh Come Inspire Me. The former aria is deceptively simple with its gentle and murmuring string writing below a vocal line that belies its simplicity and requires a strong and confident technique to deliver its sustained notes and high tessitura as well as the delicate roulades and trills. The Arne is almost a typical period ‘vengeance’ aria that Davies dispatches with the necessary vigour and bite. What makes it more notable is Arne’s use of unison between voice and orchestra as well as use of dramatic pauses.
It makes one wish that Davies and these players will consider a disc of arias by Handel’s English contemporaries and successors alone.
But if I had the tiniest reservations with the disc it is this – the inclusion of a symphony by CPE Bach. I am not convinced by the argument made in the sleeve note. Again don’t misunderstand me, I love CPE Bach’s symphonies and it is brilliantly played with real Emfndsamer-stil style, but that is exactly the problem. The narrative of the disc works for me in terms of Handel to Hasse to Handel’s contemporaries to finally Gluck. CPE Bach is literally world’s apart in terms of style and emotion.
But as I have said it is a small price to pay. And in some ways it serves to clean the palette in preparation for Davies’ Gluck.
From Telemaco comes Ah! Non Turbi Il Mio Riposo with its doleful oboe obbligato and hesitant phrasing. Davies captures the poignantly of this aria beautifully while maintaining the exposed legato vocal line.
The most startling thing about the opening bars of the arioso Che Puro Ciel! from Orfeo ed Euridice is how – for some reason – it reminded me of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I can only put this down to the wonderfully articulated playing of the orchestra. A real moment and this is heightened when Davies enters and there is no sense that the orchestra is in any muted below the singer. I don’t think I have heard this arioso performed with such clarity and beauty in a long time.
One review I read that said that Davies didn’t convincingly carry off the broad phrases in Orfeo. I don’t agree at all. If anything Davies elegant phrasing and attention to the words highlights the simplicity of Che Farò to greater effect.
The final aria of the recital, Pensa a sebarmi o cara, was written by Guadagni himself. To be honest after the gems that precede it his own aria – while clearly playing to his vocal abilities – is a pleasant enough example of galanterie but nothing more.
Yet it doesn’t detract from the overall impact of either the entire recital or Iestyn Davies’ talent.
This is a hugely enjoyable recital and one I return to often. I am looking forward to his performance at Wigmore Hall this November and in advance of that I heartily recommend this disc to everyone.