On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Vancouver, a recital of songs for countertenor and lute would likely not be high up on many people’s priorities. It appears that hiking and kayaking can wait though – the intimate Vancouver Playhouse was nearly full to hear Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford. Consisting of lute songs by John Dowland and his contemporaries, in addition to the Canadian premiere of Nico Muhly’s Old Bones, it’s hard to imagine a more artistically satisfying and entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

Iestyn Davies © Benjamin Ealovega
Iestyn Davies
© Benjamin Ealovega

In an increasingly populated voice type, Iestyn Davies’ voice stands out for its beauty and evenness throughout its range. More importantly, he is a phenomenal technician and artist, a fact demonstrated repeatedly throughout the afternoon. He was ably partnered by the young lutenist Thomas Dunford, whose artistic intelligence belies his age and matches Davies’ lyricism beautifully. Though the balance was slightly skewed towards Davies throughout the recital, the incorporation of four of Dowland’s lute solos demonstrated that Dunford is absolutely an artist to admire in his own right.

The first half of the programme was dedicated to three contemporaries of John Dowland: Robert Johnson, John Danyel, and Thomas Campion. Particularly notable was Johnson’s seductive Have you seen the bright lily grow, which showed off Davies’ impressive breath control. The highlight of the first half, however, was in fact Dowland’s Semper Dowland semper dolens for solo lute, whose complex counterpoint afforded Dunford the opportunity to demonstrate his technical and artistic maturity. Particularly ravishing were his intimate pianissimi, which had the audience literally sitting at the edge of their seats. The remaining works by Johnson, Danyel, and Campion were interesting – Danyel’s extended Mrs. M.E. her funeral tears for the death of her husband in particular seemed to be a very early ancestor of the Romantic song cycle, although not even Davies and Dunford left me fully convinced.

The Dowland songs in the second half, however, were a different story altogether. Known for its melancholy affectations, Dowland’s music can come across as arch and self-indulgent. Davies’ straightforward delivery was refreshingly unsentimental, paradoxically allowing for a much wider range of emotions to be explored. The Dowland pieces allowed for the greatest amount of interaction between Davies and Dunford; the strophic Come again sweet love and Now, o now I needs must part were dazzling in their ornamentation – and it was a thrill to watch two great musicians respond and feed off each other’s artistry.

The most highly anticipated piece on the programme was Nico Muhly’s Old Bones, commissioned by Wigmore Hall in 2012 and receiving its third ever performance. Though it may have seemed odd to include a 10 minute piece written in 2013 among songs written over 400 years earlier, Muhly’s well-known fascination with Renaissance music made the piece fit perfectly into the programme. Indeed, the whole concept of the piece, inspired by the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in Leicester in 2012, is an exploration of contemporary views on a historical figure. Using the texts of an academic, a screenwriter, and a poem written in the 15th century on the death of Richard III, what this amounts to is essentially an extended soliloquy (based on texts by Philippa Langley, the screenwriter) interspersed with Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn’s text. Though Dowland’s influence on Muhly is obvious both in terms of harmonic structure and word painting, it never seems reductive and Muhly’s own musical style is always at the forefront. Most remarkable is his skill in musically differentiating the three characters while building up the tension of the piece, a quality I have found missing in many of his previous vocal works. Davies clearly relishes in the lyrical, rapturous qualities of the vocal line, and Muhly matches Dowland in contrapuntal writing for the lute. The sheer beauty of the piece, along with its accessibility and combination of forces will surely ensure its place in the repertoire for a while yet.

Overall, it was a wonderfully intimate experience, providing the ideal setting for not only the melancholy, but also the wit, joy, and pathos of Dowland’s songs. The songs by Johnson, Danyel and Campion, though emotionally not as involving, provided a wonderful showcase for the considerable artistry of Davies and Dunford, and the Muhly is a piece I would gladly hear again. Davies and Dunford concluded the recital with two fabulously raunchy encores: Campion’s I care not for these ladies and Thomas Morley’s Will you buy a fine dog?, proving once and for all that Renaissance music is more than just an academic exercise and can be truly wonderful entertainment.