Their final encore (of ‘Sound the Trumpet’) may have seemed more like a duel than a duet, but Andreas Scholl and Iestyn Davies are clearly friendly rivals, relishing the opportunities given to their voices by the music of Purcell. Their differing attributes and styles reminded us that the term ‘countertenor’ has almost as many shades of meaning as ‘tenor,’ with Scholl the more sensitive in interpretation and delicate in phrasing, whilst Davies was supreme in clarion tone and impressive agility.
Most of the vocal music in the concert’s first half was written in honour of Queen Mary, Purcell having composed all six of her ‘Birthday Odes’ and parts of two of them opened the recital, including By beauteous softness from Now does the glorious day appear, a setting of words by Thomas Shadwell, who according to Dryden “never deviates into sense.” The voices blended finely here, and after a sprightly performance of Blow’s Sonata in A from members of The English Concert, two excerpts from Come, ye sons of art away seemed to lift the atmosphere into another plane, those shining notes in ‘Sound the Trumpet’ reminding those in the audience who were old enough to remember Deller, father and son, of just how fresh and individual the counter-tenor voice can be.
Scholl’s uniquely mellifluous legato line and quality of utter naturalness even when singing the most taxing and complex music were both amply displayed in ‘Music for a while,’ and the first half of the concert ended in sombre style with a beautifully judged Ode on the death of Queen Mary, the two voices seamlessly weaving around the melancholy lines.
Harry Bicket and The English Concert clearly relished the opportunity to open the second part with the Symphony from Sound the Trumpet, and they gave a rousing performance of the wonderful Chaconne from King Arthur, a work much more popular than The Fairy Queen in the composer’s lifetime. ‘Let the fifes and the clarions’ from the latter work showed how close the ensemble is between these two voices.
Each was allowed to shine individually before and after this duet, Scholl holding the audience spellbound with his vocal prowess in ‘What power art thou’ (otherwise known as the ‘Cold Song’) from King Arthur, and Davies giving a dulcet, flowing account of ‘Fairest isle.’ Perhaps inevitably, the great ‘Evening Hymn’ brought the programme to a close, celebrating both the genius of Henry Purcell and the unique beauty of the countertenor voice.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.