‘A Singularity of Voice’

Author: Tom Service

‘A Singularity of Voice’. That’s a phrase that could have been made for countertenor Iestyn Davies. As he tells me, there’s both a personal and a professional mission behind the title of his Wigmore Hall residency (which started at the end of the November and continues in February and July with concerts in which he’s partnered by harpsichordist Richard Egarr and lutenist Thomas Dunford). ‘I took it from the title of Alfred Deller’s autobiography’, he says, ‘and there’s a nice link with Deller in that I was born the year he died, 1979, and thanks to his legacy there are so many people my age singing countertenor, and when I’m not around there will be other generations’. That’s typical of Davies’s nuanced understanding of his voice, and what it means to be a countertenor. ‘‘A Singularity of Voice’ sums up not only Deller as an iconic voice’, Davies says, ‘but also the idea of the singularity of the countertenor within the panoply of other voices. He’s one of the most important vocalists of the 20th century because before him no-one ever expected to see a countertenor sing alone, to sing a solo recital’.

But anyone who’s seen Davies sing in recital, oratorio, or opera will know that he’s far from simply following in the footsteps of any of his great trail-blazing predecessors. What’s so distinctive about Davies’s voice is its commanding expressivity, whether it’s on the scale of the intimacy of the lute-songs by John Dowland and John Daniel he’ll be singing with Dunford or the infectious stage presence and vocal dynamism and power he brought to the role of Trinculo in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in October and November. The first concert in Davies’s Wigmore residency, with Ensemble Matheus, was designed to show off an earlier pre-history of the voice, the countertenor arias that Handel wrote for high-voice, non-castrato male soloists. ‘The point was to say that Handel adapted to the voices he had around him, that he composed for countertenors. But the programme was really not about the countertenor, it was great baroque music, it was Handel’.

There’s a hint of apology behind Davies’s words, as if he feels the countertenor still needs some help to be taken seriously as a solo voice in its own right. But surely musical culture has changed since Deller’s groundbreaking performances, which made Michael Tippett exclaim ‘this is the voice we’ve been missing’. Surely we – as audiences, record-buyers, promoters, writers, listeners – now have no problem accepting the idea that the countertenor is a voice like all the rest, as essential to musical culture as the soprano, as fully expressive an instrument as the tenor? As Davies says, it’s no longer about ‘being a countertenor, it’s about being a singer’.

But it turns out that’s only partly true. Davies understands that there is something special about being a countertenor. (Even if it took him until he was 25 to get used to the term: ‘I just didn’t like the word, the whole ‘counter’ thing, it sounds like you’re ‘against’ the tenor; ‘alto’, well that covers men and women but ‘male alto’ is a horrible term as well. And why not ‘male tenor’? There are some ‘female tenors’ after all!’) Having been a chorister at St John’s College, Cambridge, Davies discovered his falsettist voice in his late teens at Wells Cathedral School, returning to St John’s as a student and choral scholar. That specialness was musical as well as a personal feeling of warmth and rightness singing up there above the reach of his bass-broken voice. In discovering the countertenor repertoire, Davies says that the voice and the way composers like Britten and Tippett have composed for it gives him and his colleagues access to a uniquely ‘ethereal, otherworldly quality’. Conductor Stephen Layton even told Davies that he thinks of the countertenor as a spiritual rather than an operatic voice, but that’s too limiting for Davies. Think of Handel again, he says, who wrote for the countertenor as a high, heroic voice.

I sense that Davies wants to have it both ways – and who can blame him? – in arguing both for the specialness of his voice-type and its repertoire, and at the same time wanting to set no limits on the expressive range of what he can give to audiences, and within the bounds of what’s appropriate, to the music  he should and shouldn’t sing. He remembers eliding Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell with Mahler’s Um Mitternacht, one of those revelatory musical juxtapositions that reveals Davies’s programming flair, connecting nocturnal, lamenting music from across the centuries, and shining a new light on pieces you thought you knew.

All that’s fine in principle but meaningless in practice unless you’ve got the vocal brilliance to pull it off. And Davies has. For all his thinking about his responsibilities to the craft of singing, and his understanding of his place within the history of countertenor-dom, it’s his immediacy and sheer expressive intensity as a performer that defines his voice and his personality. He credits all those years of sight-reading in the choir of St John’s for the spontaneity and directness he brings to his performances, qualities he’s relishing exploring in his partnerships with the mercurial Egarr and Dunford in the two Wigmore programmes next year.

These concerts – which include a new commission from Nico Muhly for voice and lute – crystallise Davies’s creative approach to the past. Studying archaeology at Cambridge made him realise that stories of a supposedly ceaseless progress of humanity were bunk, pure and simple. And it’s the same with music. ‘We have this idea that it’s about a journey of improvement from Hildegard of Bingen to Thomas Adès, with the 17th and 18th centuries in the middle. If you believe that, it means there are rules about what you can and can’t do with the music of certain historical periods. But I don’t believe that people had less heart or felt less in the 16th century than they do today. Instead of diktats like ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’, we should just sing musically. I mean, if you’re told you should sing without vibrato just for the sake of it, I think that’s anti-singing: it’s what the voice naturally does, and what the voice naturally did. Those questions are just about style, but what’s really important is the music. We’re doing a disservice to this music by constantly putting it in a museum-like box’. Davies’s intellectual approach, his musical instincts, and his life as a countertenor amount to living proof of the essential presentness of the past: it’s a singular voice, and his is already a singular achievement.

Wigmore Hall residency, performances on: 27th February 2013 and 5th July 2013.

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