It’s not often that you come across a singer who works his brain cells as energetically (or as skillfully) as his vocal cords, but the young British countertenor Iestyn Davies did exactly that Sunday at the Phillips Collection.
As a fast-rising star in the vocal universe, Davies might have been forgiven for dishing out pyrotechnics and crowd-pleasers; instead, he showed himself to be an unusually thoughtful and perceptive musician, presenting a program of mostly British music titled “History Repeating” that explored the complex ties among composers as diverse as Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten, weaving Bach, Handel and the mildly eccentric Peter Warlock into a fascinating whole.
It was clear from the first notes that Davies has an absolutely superb voice — supple, agile, beautifully controlled and effortless throughout its entire range. Opening with three songs by Purcell (in imaginative arrangements by Britten and Sir Michael Tippett), Davies handled the technical complexities of “Lord What Is Man” and “Sweeter Than Roses” with impressive ease. But it was his directness and authenticity with the emotional complexities of the music that really made the afternoon. It’s no easy trick to bring off Purcell’s “In the Black Dismal Dungeon of Despair” — a work as cheerful as it sounds — in a countertenor voice, but Davies turned in an utterly gripping account, pared to the bone and all the more powerful for it.
That was the tone throughout the afternoon, from Bach’s “Geistliche Lieder” to the songs by Franz Schubert (“Der Tod und das Maedchen”), and from Brahms to Herbert Howells’s luminous “O My Dear Heart” and the achingly beautiful Christmas carol “Bethlehem Down” by Peter Warlock.
A musician’s musician, Davies trimmed each song to its essentials, revealing unsuspected beauties and subtle details. The only (mildly) disappointing aspect of the recital, in fact, was Kevin Murphy’s accompaniment on the piano, which was fine but never quite up to the singer’s sniper-like technical precision and exceptional depth of thought.
Brookes is a freelance writer.