There seems to be no end to the talents of Iestyn Davies. A thoroughly modern countertenor, Davies is at home in all sorts of venues, whether they be churches, concert halls, opera houses, recording studios or theatres, and wherever he goes he impresses audiences with both the breadth and the quality of his performances. So it is only natural that such a talented performer should want to turn his hand to that greatest of composers, JS Bach. The only problem is, as Richard Wigmore points out in his illuminating notes, “with countertenors confined to English cathedral choirs and castrati to the opera house, ‘alto’ for Bach meant a teenaged boy on the cusp of adolescence.”
While from the dual standpoints of vocal technique and timbre, this prospect might have dampened the composer’s enthusiasm for alto solos, particularly in the cantatas, we are fortunate to have Cantata 54 from the Weimar period, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, which Wigmore believes would have been written for a particularly gifted boy alto.
Cast in three movements, this musical admonition against sin and Satan is a colourful and expressive work, but Davies and Arcangelo take an intimate and controlled approach, despite all the talk of Sodom’s apples and the devil’s vile shackles. The final fugue shows Davies to be both agile and accurate.
Cantata 170, Vergnügte Ruh’, Beliebte Seelenlust, also from Weimar and possibly also written with the same alto in mind, is another rant against the sinful world. In the opening aria Davies superbly conveys the “contented rest” to which the Christian aspires, ably negotiates the sinuous chromaticism symbolising “perverted hearts” in the central aria and revels in the prospect of being taken to Jesus in the finale, with its exuberant organ obbligato.
Between the three vocal cantatas, we are treated to a pair of sinfonias from Cantatas 52 and 174, both of which began life as movements for the Brandenburg Concertos. Decked out here in more festive orchestrations, they make an appealing contrast and are delivered with Arcangelo’s hallmark clarity and a sense of genuine enjoyment.
Davies appropriates the justly famous cantata, Ich Habe Genug (BWV82) in its reworked 1735 alto version to great effect, tapping into its deep yearning for death and final union with God. Beautifully sung throughout, here is an utterly moving union of sentiment and music that will have you listening repeatedly. Definitely music to die for.