An afternoon of sweet melancholy with Iestyn Davies and Fretwork

Mon Oct 28, 2019 at 11:17 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Iestyn Davies performed Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall.

Friday evening at Mandel Hall, UChicago Presents offered an evening of bleak Mahler songs performed by Christian Gerhaher, suitable for a rainy blustery night.

On Sunday, countertenor Iestyn Davies and Fretwork took the same stage for a matinee concert that—if hardly as bright as the day’s autumn sunshine—centered on music of sweet melancholy.

Though Fretwork was the formal headliner for the UCP event, it’s likely that many in attendance were there for the viol consort’s guest vocalist. Davies enjoyed a high profile in Chicago last spring, portraying—in unrecognizable makeup—the villain Polinesso in Lyric Opera’s controversial staging of Handel’s Ariodante. He also appeared, less controversially, in a Bach concert presented by Haymarket Opera.

Sunday’s program was largely focused on Elizabethan music for voice and viols. While performed with consistent polish and refinement, the menu of slow, introspective music proved a bit unvaried for a full program. Including some of Michael Nyman’s music—recorded by these artists on a recent CD— would have enlivened the proceedings with some contemporary contrast.

That said, Iestyn Davies is the finest countertenor currently before the public and his sensitive vocalism made for an enjoyable afternoon of music.

The opening William Byrd group set the relaxed style for the concert—Davies and Fretwork alternated vocal and instrumental selections, with the singer taking a seat on stage behind his colleagues during his respites. 

The Mandel Hall acoustic proved a wonderful complement to Davies’ voice. In Byrd’s “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” and “Ye Sacred Muses” his bright pure tone and rounded, naturally produced singing always fell graciously on the ears.  Texts were provided but Davies’ diction was so clear and easily projected that they weren’t necessary 

Two songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams—the only post-18th-century music on the program—were especially lovely. Davies nicely conveyed the gentle pastoral essence of “The Sky Above the Roof” and in “Silent Moon,” his singing was as radiantly beautiful as the Rossetti poetry mines in the lyrics.

Johann Christoph Bach’s “Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hatten” and a set of Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigals showed Davies bringing the same bell-like tone and interpretive sensitivity to more offbeat selections. In Purcell’s  “O Solitude” Davies voice blended seamlessly with the backing viols, the singer handing the florid passages with unruffled ease. 

The closing Handel set provided a taste of Davies in operatic material, leading off with a supple “Gia l’ebro mio cigliio” from Orlando. In “Piangero la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare, Davies floated Cleopatra’s desolate aria with suffused sadness, the angry middle section providing the concert’s sole burst of coloratura sparks.


Artistic director Richard Boothby is the sole remaining original member of Fretwork, founded in 1985. The viol quintet proved notably simpatico partners with Davies throughout the afternoon, apart from a jarring loss of intonation from one player in Handel’s Passacaille (from Op. 5, no. 4). The consort brought mellow, darkly burnished and finely blended playing to instrumental selections by Byrd, Gibbons, Lawes, Purcell and Jenkins.

Repeated applause brought Davies back out for an encore of Purcell’s “An evening hymn”— pliant and elegant in the main section and throwing off the extended line of the concluding  “Hallelujah” in bravura fashion.

The program was dedicated to David Bevington, international Shakespeare scholar and longtime UC professor, who passed away in August.

UChicago Presents continues with vision string quartet performing music of Bacewicz, Haydn and Schumann 7:30 p.m. November 8 at Mandel Hall.

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