Thursday 30 January 2014

His Tuneful Voice - Iestyn Davies sings Handel

Your Tuneful Voice - Handel Oratorio Arias - Iestyn Davies - VIVAT
Your Tuneful Voice: Iestyn Davies, The King's Consort, Robert King: Vivat 105
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 30 2014
Star rating: 4.5

This is a highly recommended disc in which Iestyn Davies certainly does not tread the well trod path of alto arias from Handel's oratorios

This latest disc on The Kings Consort's Vivat label, Robert King and The King's Consort join forces with counter-tenor Iestyn Davies to explore Handel's writing for the alto voice in his oratorios. The selection of arias ranges widely from Handel's early Esther right through to Jephtha and The Triumph of Time and Truth (which was itself an Anglicisation of one of Handel's early Italian oratorios). The selection of arias is admirably quirky and showcases some lesser known pieces, this certainly isn't a canter through Handel's greatest hits. And the disc shows off Iestyn Davies's voice, one of the most beautiful around today, to perfection.

The majority of the items on the disc were not written for a counter-tenor voice. Handel used a variety of different types of alto voice in his career, female contraltos (some of whom specialised in playing male roles), alto castratos and counter-tenors. Handel wrote for relatively few counter-tenors, as good soloists seemed to be in relatively short supply. And we don't actually know what the men who sang alto for Handel actually sounded like and how much falsetto/head voice they used; whether they were effectively tenors with a short falsetto extension or far more like the modern counter-tenor voice.

What has happened on this disc is that Davies has clearly chosen arias which suit his style of voice and the result is to give us some profoundly beautiful and highly intelligent singing, with characterful accompaniment from the King's Consort.

The disc opens with O sacred oracles of truth from Belshazzar, written for Mrs Cibber to sing as the character Daniel (Mrs Cibber was the singer and actress who had sung in the premiere of Messiah). In the event, she was ill for Belshazzar and the solos had to be re-assigned. Davies (who has just recorded the role complete with William Christie) here sings with a lovely sense of line and gives the aria a quietly contemplative feel. He spins out the long lines finely, with a beautiful quality to the phrasing.

Mortals think that Time is sleeping comes from The Triumph of Time and Truth the 1757 English version of his 1707 Italian oratorio. In 1757 sung by Isabella Young. Here Davies sings with poise, bringing great care to the passagework. In the da capo he gives us some lovely elaboration. The ritornello features some lovely recorder playing.

Tune your harps to cheerful strains is the first of three items on the disc from Esther, originally written in 1720 but revived in various forms and where the role of Assuerus was sung variously by a high tenor, a male alto, three very different castratos and the tenor John Beard. The aria is effectively a duet with the oboe, and serenade-like with the plucked string accompaniments. Davies gives us a beautifully focussed line and beauty of tone.

Mighty love now calls to arm from Alexander Balus opens with a brilliant ritornello full of trumpets and oboes. Davies is vibrantly martial with nicely even passagework. The oratorio dates from 1747 and the role of Alexander was originally sung by the contralto Caterina Galli who specialised in playing men.

Robert King and the King's Consort follow this with the overture to Handel's final oratorio Jephtha premiered in 1752. The make the first section richly sonorous with nicely bounced rhythms and some fluent and mellow toned oboe playing, then conclude with a graceful minuet.

Eternal source of light divine from Handel's Birthday Ode for Queen Anne (written in 1713 it may never have been performed for the Queen), is one of Handel's loveliest melodies and here receives a very fine performance indeed . Davies allies his profoundly beautiful tone to a sense of the line stretching out endlessly, and he is paired with a finely controlled trumpet solo.

The title role of Handel's Solomon (1749) was another role sung by Caterina Galli. Here Davies is joined by Carolyn Sampson for the duet Welcome as the dawn of day, with the two voices balancing and complementing each other nicely, in a performance full of poise. The orchestra contributes some graceful rhythmic pointing of the accompaniment.

The role of Athmas in Semele (1743) was one actually written for a male alto, in this case Daniel Sullivan who sang the English theatres. The role is one of those, like Hamor in Jephtha, which are necessary plot but not very dramatically significant perhaps reflecting Sullivan's poor acting skills. Davies sings the aria Your tuneful voice my heart would tell with graceful sense of line and a poised melancholy. He gives a fluid fluency to the passagework, with a lovely placing of the descending quaver figure. The whole has a quietly affecting dignity.

The Choice of Hercules (1751) was a small scale work which Handel wrote re-using much of his incidental music for the play Alceste. The role of Hercules was sung by the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni, on whose career Handel seems to have had a great influence. Yet I can hear that dulcet lay is another gentle lyric number which Davies performs to perfection.

As I have said, the role of Hamor in Jephtha (1752) is not a dramatic one, but rather interestingly the role was sung by one Charles Brent who, after a brief flirtation with music, returned to his career as a fencing master! Up the dreadful steep ascending is brightly perky, with some nice even runs. Technically brilliant though Davies is, this is not an end in itself and the aria is finely expressive.

The orchestra follows this with the overture to Samson (1741), the first movement is nicely sonorous with crisp rhythms, the second has some great detail in the faster middle section whilst the final movement is an elegant minuet. In all three we get some very fine horn playing.

Thou shalt bring them in from Israel in Egypt (1738) was first performed by William Savage, a singer who started out as a treble (singing Oberto in Alcina) and ended as a bass (singing the title role in Imenio) en route between the two he sang both tenor and alto. Here again we have a lovely lyrical line with lovely control in the faster passages.

Who calls my parting soul from death is a duet from Esther, in which Davies is again joined by Carolyn Sampson. The piece starts from a lovely hush, with Sampson singing on just a threat of voice. The two give a moving and affecting performance, this is a lesser know piece but powerful all the same.

On the valleys, dark and cheerless a further aria from The Triumph of Truth and Time, with Davies's lyrical beauty and poise complemented with some lovely recorder playing. Finally, a further aria from Esther, How can I stay when love invites, in which Davies gives us some great passagework and the orchestra contributes a bouncing accompaniment.

The selection of arias includes a number which you might not come across ordinarily which makes it all the more fascinating. The selection would seem to indicate Davies's preference for gently lyrical numbers and whilst I might have wanted a little more variety, the selection certainly allows Davies to show of the great beauty of his voice. I have rarely heard Handel sung so finely, and with such intelligence. He rather favours line over words at times, but this is a small point particularly in a recital.

The booklet includes a fascinating article by Donald Burrows which covers both the music and the singers for whom Handel wrote it.

This is a highly recommended disc in which Davies certainly does not tread the well trod path.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - O sacred oracles of truth (Belshazzar) [5.01]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Mortals think that Time is sleeping (The Triumph of Truth and Time) [7.05]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Tune your harps to cheerful strains (Esther) [4.45]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Mighty love now calls to arm (Alexander Balus) [2.35]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Overture to Jeptha [6.47]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Eternal source of light divine (Birthday Ode to Queen Anne) [3.35]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Welcome as the dawn of day (Solomon) [3.32]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Your tuneful voice my tale would tell (Semele) [5.12]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Yet can I hear that dulcet lay (The Choice of Hercules) [3.49]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Up the dreadful steep ascending (Jephtha) [3.36]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Overture to Samson [7.45]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Thou shalt bring them in (Israel in Egypt) [3.15]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Who calls my parting soul from death (Esther) [3.15]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - On the valley's dark and cheerless (The Triumph of Truth and Time) [4.00]
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - How can I say when love invites (Esther) [3.06]
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
The King's Consort
Robert King (conudcotr)
Recorded in The Menuhin Hall, Surrey on September 6-8 2013
VIVAT 105 1CD [67.23]

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