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Hamstrung Handel

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Review on November 28, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Handel’s Altos – Music for Countertenor & Castatro (Wigmore Hall, Tuesday 27 November 2012)

Iestyn Davies (Countertenor)
Alexis Kossenko (Recorder, flute)
Jean-Marc Goujon (Recorder)
Neil Brough (Trumpet)

Ensemble Matheus
Jean-Christophe Spinosi (Conductor)

Iestyn Davies opened his residency at Wigmore Hall – A Singularity of Voice after the biography of Alfred Deller – with a concert inspired by selections from oratorios and three arias from Partenope together with instrumental selections from Handel and Telemann.

Iestyn Davies is – personally – one of the leading countertenors performing today. He has a wonderfully rich timbre, even and resonant with a sure-footed technique that cuts through even the most devilish divisions written by Handel. And what was particularly stunning last night was his complete control of dynamics and vocal light and shade in his singing. Marvellous.

So it was disappointing that this inaugural concert took a while to settle down and ultimately didn’t quite gel.

Not through any fault of Mr Davies.

The opening piece, Eternal Source of Light Divine, so ravishingly performed only last week at OAE’s Nightshift, sounded distinctly hesitant and ragged under Spinosi’s direction. Indeed intonation and inconsistent playing seemed to be Ensemble Matheus default position for most of the evening and was clearly a distraction not only sitting in the audience but it seems for Davies himself.

Eternal Light simply failed to shine. Indeed Davies looked almost ‘discomforted’.

The remaining arias in the first half of the concert were delivered with increasing measures of success. Davies was much more secure in Their Land Brought Forth Frogs from Israel in Egypt but again Spinosi’s players played the notes with some rhythmic indistinction and poorly attuned ensemble playing. This was particularly noticeable in the middle section of The Peasant Tastes The Sweets of Life from Joseph and his Brethren with the continuo player had clear intonation problems.

By the fourth aria Davies seems more in control – perhaps a sharp word in the green room between appearances? – and the selections from Jephtha and Semele were much more decisive and alert. The figurative melisma in Up The Dreadful Steep Ascending (Jephtha) were thrown off with great confidence by the countertenor and Despair No More Shall Wound Me from Semele was a suitable tour de force to end the first half.

Spinosi also included the overture and Sinfonia from Handel’s Xerxes in the first half. For some reason – and I don’t buy the programme notes line about “optional at all – there were no oboes present on the stage. This led to a distinct lack of colour, piquancy and weight in the overture. An ill-conceived decision.

The second half opened with the cantata Splenda in Alba when Ensemble Matheus were supplemented with additional flutes but despite a reference in the programme note, still no oboe. Davies sailed through this relatively unknown cantata with ease. His voice was clarion clear and he sang the arias with beautifully poised affection.

The Ensemble then performed a well-executed if bland performance of Telemann’s Concerto in e minor for flute, recorder and strings. At this point Spinosi returned to the stage violin in hand and in a rather affected manner seemed to take an age to tune. Distracting. It’s a wonderful concerto but failed to grip me. I was not a fan of Kossenko’s over-blousy recorder timbre and while both soloists were technically proficient there was a distinct lack of character in their playing. As I said it was a well-executed performance but didn’t seem to delve into the richness of Telemann’s music full as his music is with the baroque Affections. And the gypsy-inspired foot-stamping by the ensemble in the final movement seemed more contrived that the result of infectious and joyous music making.

Davies closed the concert with three arias from Partenope. Again he was slightly let down by his orchestral players. Sento amor was spun out with great delicacy, with Davies demonstrating he most perfect skill in delivering Handel’s wonderful arcing phrases. And his musical intelligence and sensitivity was underlined here – as in other arias of the evening – with beautifully placed ornamentation on the da capo return. But the wonderful Ch’io parta was marred by what can only be described as turgid playing leading the aria to drag and undermining the simplicity of this aria. And again the continuo cellist suffered from intonation problems in the middle section.

Fittingly, if not chronologically correct, Iestyn closed the concert with the firework-laden Furibondo spira il vento. As well relishing the coloratura of this aria, Davies revelled in delivering with bell-like clarity the vocal leaps and bounds. Suitably the audience roared their approval.

The encore was the beguiling, almost Galant-style Un zefiro spirò from Rodelinda. Once again Davies sang in pure, honeyed tone, beautifully spinning out the triplet melismas with great delicacy. Sadly it was ever so slightly undermined by dodgy intonation once again from the continuo cellist although full plaudits to the wonderful harpsichord playing.

So perhaps not a completely auspicious start to this innovative residency but again not due to any lack of musical brilliance on the part of Iestyn Davies. Without a doubt he was vocally and musically on top form but his performance was undermined – if not marred – by Spinosi and Ensemble Matheus.

Having most recently enjoyed his Arias for Guadagni with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo, I only regret that they weren’t the ensemble on stage with this amazingly talented countertenor at Wigmore Hall.

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