Fresh from his role in Glyndebourne’s critically-acclaimed production of Saul, Iestyn Davies is establishing himself as one of our country’s leading Handelians, and his presence alongside The English Concert in a programme of Handel arias, lent a great sense of occasion to Wigmore Hall’s season opener.

Iestyn Davies © Sisi Burn
Iestyn Davies
© Sisi Burn

The programme grouped together arias from four Handel operas: Partenope, Rinaldo, Rodelinda and Orlando interspersed with orchestral works from some of Handel’s less-celebrated contemporaries. This made for a nicely balanced programme that also gave the instrumentalists the opportunity to step into the limelight.

Partenope, composed for the reopened Royal Academy in 1729, was probably the most obscure Handel work on the programme. Davies assumed the role of Arsace, who is battling for the affections of the eponymous Queen of Venice. After a lively rendition of the overture, Davies performed three arias from the work, which managed to showcase the breadth of his skills. He achieved a magnificent purity of tone in “Sento amor”, but what is more remarkable is that as the elongated, high-lying lines of that aria gave way to the intricate, furious semiquaver passages that dominate “Furibondo spira il vento”, the purity of Davies’ tone remained alongside incredible precision.

This spellbinding accuracy was matched by The English Concert, who then performed Veracini’s Overture no 2 in F. Harry Bicket, both director and harpsichordist for the evening, carried out both tasks with tremendous energy, ensuring a continual sense of momentum and vivacity that matched the pastoral feeling of the work. The ensemble sparkled, with each player conveying a sense of individuality and personality while ensuring to blend and move as one.

The second half opened with the languid “Dove sei” from Rodelinda in which the heroic Prince Bertarido longs for a reunion with his wife. Davies controlled the line beautifully, and as he had done in the first half, in a manner subtle enough for the Wigmore stage, managed to convey a shift in characterisation as he took on this new role.

Iestyn Davies and The English Concert © Sisi Burn
Iestyn Davies and The English Concert
© Sisi Burn

Nicola Popera found himself in the favour of the English nobility in 1736, casting Handel into the shade for a season, and his Sinfonia de camera in G was composed at that time. A brief three movement piece, it opens with an Adagio based around a falling scale theme set in imitative counterpoint. This is followed by a lively Allegro, reminiscent of Vivaldi, in which the two violin parts (both played solo), alternate and converse, and more miraculously come together in unison to share some extremely swift runs. It was a well-judged intermission from the Handel arias, and showcased the virtuosity of Bicket's ensemble.

The recital came to an end with six arias from Orlando, beginning with Orlando's descent into the underworld. His resulting psychological breakdown was wonderfully portrayed by Davies in a curiously untriumphant climax to the evening. The final lullaby-like aria “Già l'ebro mio ciglio”, one of the few in the programme with no da capo repeat so as not to spoil the momentum, was captivating.

This was a sensitively chosen programme providing a diverse snapshot of some of Handel's greatest writing for voice. The novelty of the countertenor voice can occasionally lead to recitals, especially with Italiante repertoire, becoming all spectacle and no substance. Whilst there might be some degree of authenticity to that style of presentation, in the vein of the celebrity castrati of Handel's time, what is so refreshing about Davies is the depth of his interpretative ability, and the sense of his commitment to the music and text. It would have been easy to present a selection of Handel arias as a potpourri of treats, but what we got instead an intelligent and searching overview of a composer writing at the height of his powers. The aria from Saul that served as the encore was a perfectly judged conclusion.

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