Both countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford have given first-rate concerts here in the last few years, the former at the Phillips Collection and the latter at the French Embassy. We have Vocal Arts DC to thank, however, for presenting the combination of the two musicians in an immaculate and affecting concert on Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
Davies possesses one of the most refined and lucent countertenor voices, with flawless intonation, ease and beauty across its range and not even a hint of shrillness. With his love of text, intelligent phrasing and clean but not overdone English diction, Davies is a natural match for the English Renaissance lute-song repertory, and Dunford, who has a similarly delicate approach to his instrument, matched him phrase for phrase. In repertory that is so soft, requiring careful listening, the two musicians held the audience spellbound and still, except for a few inconsiderate coughs.
Songs and pieces for lute by John Dowland provided the highlights, including both the song “Flow My Tears” and the lute piece “Lachrymae,” based upon it. For the somber song “In Darkness Let Me Dwell,” the performers made the unusual decision to perform with all the lights out in the theater, an unnecessary but not unpleasant gimmick. Songs by Dowland’s lesser contemporaries filled out the program, most notably Robert Johnson’s perfectly crafted “Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow?,” John Danyel’s slitheringly chromatic “Can Doleful Notes?,” and Thomas Campion’s disarming “Never weather-beaten sail.” The Washington premiere of American composer Nico Muhly’s “Old Bones” did not hold up to comparison in this company, because of its decidedly unpoetic text and weak melodic writing. An odd encore merged Campion’s “I Care Not for These Ladies” with Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.”
Downey is a freelance writer.