Tuesday 23 June 2020

Intimate beauty: Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny in Elizabethan lute song, Purcell, Mozart and Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies in Purcell at Wigmore Hall (Photo taken from Live Stream)
Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies in Purcell at Wigmore Hall
(Photo taken from Live Stream)
Purcell, Dowland, Johnson, Campion, Mozart, Schubert; Iestyn Davies, Elizabeth Kenny; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 June 2020
A programme of intimate gems which took us from Purcell, through Elizabethan lute song to Mozart and Schubert

The BBC Radio 3 and Wigmore Hall lunchtime recitals continued on Monday 22 June 2020 with programme given by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny on theorbo, lute and guitar. They began with Henry Purcell, and then moved on to Elizabethan lute song from John Dowland, Thomas Campion and Robert Johnson, before finishing with a group which moved towards the 19th century, with a song by Mozart and a pair of songs by Schubert.

We opened with Purcell, three airs sung by Iestyn Davies with Elizabeth Kenny on the theorbo. 'Strike the viol, touch the lute', from Purcell's final birthday ode for Queen Mary, Come ye songs or art, away showed Davies in fine form, producing apparently effortless beautiful tone combined with expressive words to vivid effect, and partnered by Kenny's lively accompaniment. 'By beauteous softness mixed with majesty' from Purcell's first birthday ode Now Does the Glorious Day Appear, was slower with Davies shaping the sinuous melody in a very seductive way. Finally, Lord, what is man? A Divine Hymn, which began with dramatic arioso, given a strongly rhetorical feel by the performers and I loved the textures of the theorbo accompaniment here. The following aria had a distinct feeling of the formal dance about it, and we finished with a perky Alleluia, full of lovely elaborations.
These three airs were followed by three of Kenny's own arrangements for theorbo, of Purcell's keyboard pieces. First a lively Rigadoon, and then the more plangent Sefauchi's Farewell whose title refers to an Italian castrato who sang in London. Finally, the lively Lilbulero.

We then moved on to Elizabethan (and Jacobean) lute song. First John Dowland's Behold a wonder here in a beautifully poised performance which created a really intimate effect, where Davies' inflections of the words and the colours in his voice counted for a lot. Then the poignant The spyres curten of the night is spread by Thomas Campion (who besides being a poet and composer was a practising physician). Here Davies' floated vocal line created a really touching effect. Then came a lute solo, Robert Johnson's gentle and haunting Fantasia. Further Dowland followed. Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears was full of the composer's trademark lyric melancholy, which Davies and Kenny conveyed with clarity and expressivity.  The King of Denmark, his Galliard, named for Dowland's sometime employer King Christian of Denmark, proved to be stately yet full of imaginative twists. The final song was Thomas Campion's lively  I care not for these ladies, full of bounce and a complete delight. The group ended with another lute solo, this time the anonymous Mr Confess'  Coranto, a gentle, elegant piece full of elaborate textures.

For the final group of songs, Kenny moved to a French guitar, and the guitar was very much part of music making in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. First we heard Mozart's song Abendempfindung, where the use of guitar accompaniment heightened the intimate nature of the song. Then came a pair of Schubert songs. We know that Schubert owned and played the guitar, possessing one even when he did not have a piano in his lodgings, but there is a suggestion that his surviving works for voice and guitar have the guitar part arranged by another hand. Still, the image of Schubert accompanying songs on the guitar is a tempting one, and here Davies and Kenny made a strong case for the combination. Heidenroslein was taken at quite a swift tempo, with beautifully floated phrases from Davies at the end of each stanza. Am Tage aller Seelen was gentle and calm, with a lovely line and a concentrated sense of intimacy.

Finally, as an encore Davies and Kenny gave us 'Hide me from day's garish eye' from Handel's L'Allegro.

Until 22 July 2020, the concert is available streaming on the Wigmore Hall website and on BBC Sounds

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  • Richard Wagner's heir, innovative festival director, opera composer, homosexual: the complex tale of Siegfried Wagner - feature article
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  • Hee-Young Lim: the young Korean cellist in Prokofiev & Rachmaninov cello sonatas on Sony Classical - CD review
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