First published on 19 August, 2015
There are occasions when a scratch ensemble sounds like nothing more or less. Then there are occasions — this was one — when being thrown together can work wonders in fresh spirit and ultra-intent listening. Countertenor Iestyn Davies did a Wigmore Hall recital with a group called Ensemble Guadagni a few years ago: same name, different players. Yesterday’s programme of Purcell and John Blow featured a crack bunch of baroque music instrumentalists, led by violinist Bojan Cicic and powered from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr. A pair of recorders included the mighty Pamela Thorby, ever bold and rich-toned, while Alison McGillivray provided stylish, supple gamba lines and William Carter wove filigree textures and rhythmic thrust from guitar and theorbo. I could have listened all day to their exuberant, supremely sensitive playing in Purcell’s Fantasia: Three Parts on a Ground.
Davies himself is on stratospheric form at the moment, fresh from singing in Barrie Kosky’s opulent production of Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne and clearly in operatic mood. There were moments yesterday when less could have done more: the Queen’s Hall is no vast auditorium and the instrumentalists were providing cushioning of glitteringly delicacy. There were times, too, when the dauntless confidence that Davies brings to the stage glosses over some of the music’s most touching cracks and vulnerability. Purcell’s O Solitude had a very robust melancholy; Music for a While was all big, clean lines. But the clarity, command and directness of Davies’s singing is phenomenally impressive. Strike the Viol was a call to arms, sung very much in the imperative, and What Power Art Thou had a dark urgency. Fairest Isle was flawless, full-bodied, arresting.