In the last few years Iestyn Davies has achieved a well-deserved position of eminence among counter-tenors. I’ve greatly enjoyed his contributions to recordings, conducted by Stephen Layton, of the St John Passion (review) and Messiah (review). Here is another opportunity to enjoy his work in the music of Handel.
The programme is well chosen for two reasons. Firstly, for the most part the arias are from works which are not often heard complete nowadays and, indeed, the arias themselves may be unfamiliar to many listeners, other than Handel specialists. Secondly, the selected repertoire plays to Davies’ strengths, including his ability to spin a long, sensuous line and his agility in rapid passagework.
The track for which I made an immediate bee-line was Eternal source of light divine, the opening of the 1713 Birthday Ode for Queen Anne. Such pieces were commonly taken as the opportunity for some shameless, obsequious flattery of the monarch and this Ode was no exception. However, from such an unpromising source Handel fashioned in this aria one of his most ravishing creations. I’ve long admired the performance in Robert King’s 1988 complete recording of the Ode (CDA66315). There the soloist is James Bowman, partnered, as is Davies, by Crispian Steele-Perkins. Davies and Steele-Perkins perform the aria superbly, letting the long languorous phrases slowly unfold. Bowman is just as fine and I think his account has a slight edge because it was recorded in a more resonant acoustic, in the church of All Hallows, Gospel Oak. That acoustic lends an aura to the sound which isn’t quite there in this new, very clear recording made in a secular hall. However, this new Davies performance is still very lovely.
Davies is on top form throughout this album and if I don’t mention a specific item in the course of this review that shouldn’t be taken as implying inferiority in any way. I love the beguiling aria Mortals think that Time is sleeping with the accompaniment enriched by a pair of alto recorders. Davies decorates the da capo section marvellously, especially towards the end. The suave vocal line of Tune your harps to cheerful strains is a delight and the accompaniment is equally delectable, with pizzicato strings suggesting the harp and a sensuous oboe line complementing the singer’s part perfectly. One of the best-known numbers here is Thou shalt bring them in - why on earth don’t we hear Israel in Egypt with its succession of magnificent choruses much more often? The aria is delectable here, the chosen tempo imparting a pleasing lilt to the music. Davies sings the wonderful vocal line gorgeously, his tone expertly controlled and the ornamentation effortless.
When it comes to the more dramatic, quick-tempo arias Davies is just as successful. Mighty love now calls to arm is imperious, the passagework thrown off with consummate agility; the martial trumpets are most effective. He’s also very agile in How can I stay when love invites where the clarity of the passagework is admirable - so too is the sprightly accompaniment by The King’s Consort.
Carolyn Sampson is a welcome guest in two duets. She talks the part of The Queen to Davies’ Solomon in Welcome as the dawn of day and they make a completely winning partnership. Miss Sampson produces gorgeous warm tone and Davies matches her completely. Even better is the duet Who calls my parting soul from death in which she sings Esther to his Assuerus. This is a deeply-felt duet which both singers deliver with real empathy, their singing poised and Handel’s glorious melodic lines intertwining in a most affecting way.
Excellent accompanists throughout, The King’s Consort also get opportunities to shine in two overtures. The Overture to Jephtha is stylish and vigorous; the Grave sections are especially impressive. In a flamboyant account of the Overture to Samson the pair of horns rings out splendidly. Hearing this made me think that although Robert King recorded a good number of Handel Oratorios for Hyperion I don’t believe Samson was among them. Nor did he record Israel in Egypt. Such projects are probably prohibitively expensive nowadays but if a way could be found for Robert King to lead the Israelites out of Egypt on CD that would be a notable addition to the catalogue. A new recording of that magnificent work is long overdue.
However, returning to the matter in hand, this is a first class anthology of Handel arias. The singing of Iestyn Davies is a delight from start to finish and he receives ideal support from Robert King and his players. The well-produced booklet includes an authoritative essay by Professor Donald Burrowes and the recorded sound is clear and has just the right degree of brightness to it. Handelians and admirers of Iestyn Davies need not hesitate.