When is a good voice simply enough, an end itself, with no need for interpretative insight? Countless arguments have no doubt been launched over this one question, especially if you firmly plant yourself on either side of the Stimme v Kunst debate, but there is in fact only one answer and that is never, unless that voice of course is truly extraordinary, and I do mean of the exceptional, once in a century-type. I ask this rhetorical question as a means of framing the quandary in which I have recently found myself. Over the coming months the Wigmore Hall will be presenting a series of recitals entitled “The Art of the Countertenor”, which will showcase some of the finest talent to be found amongst this increasingly popular voice type. The first to be featured was the popular young Welsh countertenor Iestyn Davies, who performed sacred works by Hasse, Leo, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Bach. I must confess that up until now I have always considered Davies’s voice to be beautiful in a disembodied, ethereal way, but ultimately never moving; I’m afraid to say that nothing has, as a result of this recital, changed that opinion. In fact I am more convinced than ever that here is an example of pure, empty beauty, which is fundamentally lacking in both temperament and feeling, but more about why I have come to this conclusion later.
The Wigmore Hall is undoubtedly a perfect venue for the slender musculature of this fragile voice-type, allowing their piping tones to penetrate easily without fear of being overstretched by a larger auditorium. Accompanying Davies in this well thought-out programme of baroque sacred works was the energetic and oversized Concerto Copenhagen, conducted by Keith Floyd look-alike, Lars Ulrik Mortensen. The programme itself featured two instrumental works to showcase the ensemble’s technical virtuosity: Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in D and Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor. But it was the inclusion of two rare gems by 18th century composers more commonly associated with opera than with sacred compositions, which proved to be the principal interest of the evening, namely Johann Adolf Hasse and Leonardo Leo.
Hasse’s opulent, moving and emotively spiritual Alma Redemptoris Mater, was an exquisite work comprised of three arias. The programme notes informed us that opportunities for cadenzas existed, although to the best of my knowledge we did not receive any, unless of course they were so uncommonly brief as to fail to register with the listener. This is regrettable, as although the original performer of the work has never been identified there would be good reason to assume that it was composed for an alto castrato, as Hasse had access to many of the greatest singers of the age and invariably made use of them. One suspects that any castrato worth his name would certainly have introduced at least one cadenza, presumably of the more tasteful decorative kind, rather than anything outlandish and obtrusively out of place. The work itself gave plenty of scope for Davies to display a well judged diminuendo and messa di voce, a feat that often proves elusive to many of his less vocally steady colleagues. He also exhibited a seamless legato throughout and excellent breath control, especially in the third movement of the piece. All of this was consistently achieved with a touchingly beautiful tone of wafer-thin dimensions.
The other rarity was the Beatus vir by the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Leo. It is less strikingly original than the Hasse, but it was nonetheless just as satisfying as the more familiar Stabat Mater (Vivaldi), which preceded it. The opening is very sprightly, far more operatic in construction that sacred. One suspects that a voice with some vibrato would be considerably more effective in such a piece than was the case here with Davies. There are evidently a few noteworthy passages which cry out for some sort of dramatic declamation, in particular the “Exortum est in tenebris lumen rectis” (“Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness”), which was discharged with the most tentative and disappointing flick of emotion by Davies. He approached something like a charge of electricity when he sang “Gloria” in the final stanza of the text, but again it was half-hearted, without true conviction and inevitably without “glory”. He did however, cope extremely well with some of the complex vocal writing, especially the odd flurry of demanding triplets, all of which served to remind you that Leo was a Neapolitan master of both opera seria and opera buffa, and likewise would have no doubt expected such works to be performed by singers with more colour and vibrato in the voice.
Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater is now a very familiar work, thanks to regular live performances and many recordings, not least by those paragons of modern countertenor singing, albeit polar opposites, Andreas Scholl and David Daniels. The text of the Stabat Mater is thought to have been written by an unidentified Franciscan poet during the 13th century. It is unknown if the soloist at the first performance at the Santa Maria della Pace in Brescia (18th March 1712), was either a castrato or a countertenor, but what is known is that that Oratorian Order of that same church insisted on certain prescriptions, namely that music is set only to the first half of the text and that certain movements must, to a certain degree, remain musically indistinguishable. It is therefore compositionally economical, with the bleak and solemn nature of the text rendered expressive through use of the tragic keys of F minor and C minor. It requires only a string quartet, basso continuo and solo voice, and as with everything performed in this recital it received an accompaniment by the Concerto Copenhagen, which was at least double the intended requirement. The overall effect was akin to hammering the wispy voice of Iestyn Davies, so that at times he seemed to barely penetrate through the throng of an over-sized ensemble. As with everything he sang, Davies displayed exquisite control and a seamless legato throughout. I would have preferred it if the phrases at the end of the sixth stanza: “Pro peccatis suae gentis” were not chopped up, but the overall effect given was of a talented vocalist, who lacked the dramatic fire which surely would have enlivened some of the more muted theatrics of the score, especially in the seventh stanza. Even though this is not secular music, there is still passion, the sort of burning crazed passion one ordinarily associates with the religiously zealous. One only has to read: “Fac ut ardeat cor meum” (“Make my heart burn with love”) to see transparently the absolute requirement of depth of emotion, which must, absolutely must, underscore the interpretation and make itself felt to the audience. It is as a communicator of the text that Davies fails, rather than on the pure technicalities of singing.
The programme officially came to a conclusion with a performance of Domenico Scarlatti’s Salve Regina (transposed from soprano to alto). Although an acceptable conclusion to the recital, one couldn’t help but think how uninteresting this Salve Regina appears when contrasted with the work of the same name by Domenico’s father, Alessandro Scarlatti (which clearly influenced Pergolesi’s sumptuous Stabat Mater). On its own merits it could have been more enjoyable if the thirteen piece ensemble had been reduced by half, allowing Davies’s voice to come through more clearly, more authoritatively even. As it was, the ending was bettered by the sole encore of the evening, “Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben” from Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium, more commonly known in English as the Christmas Oratorio. Five minutes of Bach trumped everything which came before, with Davies’s clear alto ringing bright and clear throughout the auditorium. It was a delightful end to an indifferent concert, which could have been improved with a much reduced ensemble and some interpretive insight from Davies. I do not doubt his talent for one minute, but for someone with a not inconsiderable amount of stage experience he seemed more like a neophyte testing the waters of recital performance, mistakenly believing that learning the music is enough in itself. But for all that the capacity audience loved him, which was perfectly understandable, but as a young singer developing a successful career he should grasp the opportunity to embody the artist as a musician, and not merely as a technician.