By Royal Appointment
by Gavin Dixon
photography | Mike Hoban
Taking the train into London to meet Iestyn Davies, I’m reading the Daily Telegraph. There’s a review of his recital at the Spitalfields Winter Festival in East London. Five stars. When I mention the performance later, he tells me he hadn’t sung for weeks before because of a throat infection. “But I was at the Spitalfields Festival on Friday night, easing myself back in.” That’s not how the Telegraph’s critic heard it. He commended the “perfect ease and naturalness”, the “firecracker virtuosity”, and concluded “the whole thing was a joy.” Davies evidently doesn’t believe in doing things by halves.
We meet at the Wigmore Hall, a venue that has been central to Davies’ career right back to his student days. “I’ve got a lot to thank John Gilhooly [Artistic Director of the Wigmore] for. He gave me a big break early on, when I was just finishing my studies at the Royal Academy of Music. One Christmas, he was putting on the Britten Canticles, and he booked me. Then he came to me and said he would like to give me a full solo debut here. He’s been a sort of mentor to me, very supporting. And the Wigmore is an ideal place to sing. Everybody agrees it has one of the best acoustics in the world, especially for singing.”
Like many British singers, Davies developed his skills in chapel choirs, first at Wells Cathedral School and later at St. John’s College, Cambridge. So he’s a product of the English Choral Tradition but he won’t let it define him. “It made me who I am, but I don’t think it relates to my singing. Choral training gives you a very good grounding in making music with other people, using your ear – it makes you a good communicator, not just with the audience but also with those around you. I get associated with choral music because, as a countertenor, a lot of my repertoire is related to the choral canon. But take Simon Keenlyside, he did exactly the same as me, he was a chorister and a choral scholar at St. John’s. But nobody would say that he is a product of the English Choral Tradition, he’s taken it into a different arena.”
The chapel choir may be the traditional home of the countertenor, but their horizons are expanding fast, and Davies’ career is becoming ever more diverse. There is still a core repertoire though, the music that defines the countertenor voice. Among several new releases in 2015, Davies will be recording the Bach alto cantatas. It’s not a project he’s taking lightly. “This is the kind of music you get judged on. It is like tenors singing lieder. My favourite recording of all alto singing is Andreas Scholl’s recording of three Bach cantatas, which he did in 1998. I think it is his best disc. I’ve always taken that as a benchmark, so I haven’t recorded it until now.”
A minor omission, given the impressive breadth and quality of Davies’ discography to date. Two particular highlights are his Wigmore Hall Live recital CDs (a third will be released in February 2015). They present core countertenor repertoire, but, as Davies tells me, the meaning of the music for him is always changing.
“Life experiences change the way you feel this music. The other day I had to sing Purcell’s Evening Hymn, which I’d done hundreds of times. In October my mother passed away. One of her last requests was that, when the time came, she wanted to hear the recording of Evening Hymn from the Wigmore Live CD. So we sat there as she was dying, repeatedly playing the recording. It must have played 25 times before she finally died. Last Friday was the first time I had sung it since. So I explained to the audience that it was a very different piece for me now.”
Looking ahead, Davies has an unusual project planned for spring 2015, a play called Farinelli and the King, written by Claire van Kampen and starring her husband, Mark Rylance. “Farinelli of course was a famous castrato. He was paid by the King of Spain to come to his court, to sing him out of his melancholy, to sing him to sleep. So it is not about Farinelli showing off, like in the film, but about the beauty of his voice. They are having an actor play the part of Farinelli but the singing is being done by me.”
“Claire and Mark knew of me and they’d been to hear me sing a few times. She said that she loved my singing and that she’d really love me to do it. I was really happy that she wanted what she liked about my voice to be part of the play. Also, it is not a very hard thing to say yes to working with someone like Mark Rylance; I don’t often get to work with people like that. I’m also keen to sing in a theatre setting – what better way to open doors to classical music to new audiences that may not regularly attend concerts.”
Back in the concert hall, Davies has a major premiere scheduled for next summer, a concerto for countertenor and orchestra by Nico Muhly called Sentences. “It is based all around Alan Turing and it’s going to involve lots of interesting technology like sampling and loop machines. That’s ideal for the mathematical side of the story, all the code breaking.”
Davies is also involved in a new opera by Thomas Adès, based on the Buñuel film The Exterminating Angel. “We’re doing it in the 2016/17 season in Salzburg, New York and London. I’m playing a character called Fernando. I can’t wait to hear it. It is so exciting when you hear a completely new piece like that. Tom sent me a text the other day saying he’s written me an aria about spoons!”
This article first appeared in the New Wave issue of Auditorium