Iestyn Davies delivers radiant Bach in Haymarket Opera concert

Sun Mar 10, 2019 at 6:49 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Iestyn Davies performed music of Bach in a Haymarket Opera concert Saturday night at Old St. Patrick’s Church.

It’s a testament to Iestyn Davies’ vocal and dramatic versatility that one could hardly believe that the soft-spoken, charming Englishman singing Bach cantatas Saturday night at Old St. Patrick’s Church was the same person currently inhabiting the role of a deviant sociopath at Lyric Opera.

While the company’s production of Handel’s Ariodante has been mostly reviled, Davies, portraying the villain Polinesso, has received acclaim for his performance, along with much of the cast. (Ariodante’s conductor, Harry Bicket, was in the audience Saturday as well.)

Presented by Haymarket Opera Company, Saturday night’s program offered Davies performing two Bach alto cantatas. That provided local audiences with the chance to experience a different side of the countertenor, the spiritual works also marking the start of the Lenten season.

The contrast between Davies’ odious Polinesso with the opening lines of Bach’s “Widerstehe doch der Sunde” was almost comical: “Just resist sin, lest its poison seize you.” Davies’ Bach style is assured and innate; he sang the opening aria in a natural, artless manner, eschewing a more dramatic approach. 

Davies’ voice is a wonder—fuller and richer in hue than the standard thin countertenor instrument yet possessing enviable lightness and agility. He was firmly admonitory in the central recitative of BWV 54, warning of the “apples of Sodom” and the wages of sin. Perhaps some of the more coloratura pages of the concluding aria could have been more clearly articulated, but the quality of Davies’ voice and his simple dedication were sufficient recompense. The close support and instrumental twang of the small Haymarket string ensemble, led by Craig Trompeter, provided bracing contrast with Davies’ pure tone. 

The centerpiece was “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen,” BWV 200, a lovely little aria composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and later arranged by Bach (to whom it was long erroneously attributed).  Here too, Davies brought a light spiritual expression, expanding to a more confident affirmation of faith in the final line.

Cantata No. 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” is one of Bach’s best-known solo cantatas, written on a grander scale with three arias. In the first, which gives the work its name, Davies’ easy buoyancy and bell-like top notes conveyed the text’s anticipation of “heaven’s delightful rest” for those who resist sin.

The central aria is extraordinary and a bit jarring even today. As the soloist sings of “how perverted hearts afflict me, which are so sorely set against you, my God,” Bach jettisons the bass line entirely; the strange, unsettling effect of the high piping organ without a firm foundation reflects something of the unmoored soul. Andrew Rosenblum’s superb organ playing was a fine match for Davies’ elegant singing of the despairing text. 

In the concluding aria (“Mir ekelt mehr zu leben”) Davies conveyed the longing for a peaceful life after death with singing of almost jaunty affirmation, accented by the Wurlitzer-like organ accents.

The warm ovation from the well-attended event brought Davies back out for a generous encore with Philipp Heinrich Erlebach’s “Trocknet euch ihr heissen Zähren.”  

In his brief introduction, Davies noted that the program’s theme, “From Fear to Faith,” was continued with the Erlebach aria, which states “those who surrender their heart to heaven will find peace and happiness.” He also noted that one line of the text was apt for Chicago, anxiously awaiting the return appearance of the sun. Davies supplied, arguably, his finest singing of the night in this gorgeous aria, rendered with relaxed poise and limpid, conversational intimacy.

There were more squeaks and squawks than usual Saturday from Haymarket’s fine musicians, though the reasons were largely meteorological rather than musical. The moisture from the evening’s heavy rains played havoc with the group’s gut strings and period instruments, which are balky and sensitive at the best of times. 

That necessitated more retuning than usual. There was an extended pause after the opening selection when a peg popped out of a violin due to the humidity shift affecting the wood of his instrument. Then the curled gut string stubbornly refused to go back into its hole. “We’ve lost ten percent of our orchestra,” Craig Trompeter joked. Fortunately, Haymarket’s resourceful artistic director got out the tool box and with a snip of the string the repair was made. That’s show biz in the world of period instruments.

Under the challenging circumstances, the Haymarket musicians showed grace under pressure. They provided idiomatic Bach playing with alert, rich-toned support for Davies, as well as spelling their guest star with two non-vocal selections.

Georg Muffat’s Sonata da camera No. 5 (from his Armonico Tributo) is among the many chamber sonatas written by the prolific German composer. 

Muffat’s engaging work provided a fine showcase for the Haymarket band’s round, burnished sonority, their grainy individual timbres adding a nice, tart asperity. The Fuga was lively, the Adagio sections went with stately gravitas and the players brought a warm ingratiating expression to the concluding Passacaglia, rounded off with a dancelike coda.

Trompeter took the sort-of solo spotlight in Telemann’s Suite in D major. A proto-concerto in all but name, Trompeter’s viola da gamba is first among equals here, the instrument often set off as showy protagonist against the backing string ensemble.

The mellow, oaky sound of Trompeter’s viola da gamba was a consistent pleasure and he brought out the varied styles of Telemann’s movements with his colleagues: a nimble Rondeau, the back-and-forth bravura of the Bouree, plumbing a degree of dark introspection in the Sarabande, and finishing off with a lilting Gigue.

Haymarket Opera presents Telemann’s Pimpione March 30-April 2 at the Studebaker Theater.

Iestyn Davies will return to Chicago in the fall to appear with Fretwork October 27 in the University of Chicago Presents series.

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