fri 12/07/2024

Prom 53: Davies, The English Concert, Bezuidenhout review - elegance and elan in late-night Bach | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 53: Davies, The English Concert, Bezuidenhout review - elegance and elan in late-night Bach

Prom 53: Davies, The English Concert, Bezuidenhout review - elegance and elan in late-night Bach

Linguistically fascinating, musically uplifting - two cantatas and a Brandenburg Concerto

Sustained anguish: Iestyn DaviesChris Christodoulou

Few singers can match the exhilarating range of counter-tenor Iestyn Davies’ performances, whether it’s in the free-soaring clarity of his voice in rapid recitative-style passages or the white heat of intensity he brings to sustained notes.

In this heady, captivating late-night Prom, he – together with the English Concert, inspirationally directed by Kristian Bezuidenhout (pictured below) – delivered a programme of Bach that was as linguistically fascinating as it was musically uplifting.

The opening piece was the solo cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, which Bach wrote in 1726 when he was Kantor of St Thomas School in Leipzig. This work deals with the common Lutheran theme of longing to escape the wicked world by ascending to a virtuous afterlife. It has some eye-popping lines, not least in an aria that sternly begins “How those perverted hearts grieve me… they so boldly flout thy stern punishment/with veritable Satanic scheming” (which translates into “Satansräken” in German). Yet despite some of the more lurid imagery it’s also a piece that engages with the quiet rapture of God’s redemption, gaining its dramatic tension by shifting between the singer’s contradictory states of mind.

At the outset, the English Concert brought a sense of elegance and elan, opening in the galant style that was starting to become popular in the 1720s. Davies mirrored the gentle simplicity of the opening aria, only starting to dial up the intensity as the work moved into the more agitated and harmonically complex recitative. As the text – written by the poet Georg Christian Lehms – became increasingly lurid, “Ihr Mund ist voller Ottergift” (Its mouth is filled with viper’s venom) – his voice rang out cuttingly across the auditorium. Yet his overall tone remained controlled, the tone of an individual who believed he was engaged in an essentially rational – if hopeless – quest for a world without sin.

In the “perverted hearts” aria, Davies’ performance became more introspective, as the growing strength of the protagonist’s anguish was expressed in sustained notes alternated with exquisite upward swoops of the voice. For the final recitative and aria da capo there was the sense once more of the peace he felt he could glimpse through engaging with his Creator.Throughout, the English Concert provided an accompaniment that was as sensitive as it was lively – and in the second piece of the evening, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G Major, we had a chance to see its full dynamism on display. This familiar crowd-pleaser – in which the instrumentalists seem to throw the tunes to each other as if they’re in a relay race – became a helter-skelter ride; breakneck baroque if you will, in which they raced thrillingly to the concerto’s conclusion.

There was no sacrifice in detail or emotion; the deftness of the bowing and finger-work was astonishing. The whole performance felt subversive and daring – when it finished the audience erupted with approval.

The final piece was another solo cantata, Geist und Seele wird verwirret, which like the first cantata was composed in 1726 to a libretto written by Lehms. This time the theme compared the transition from ignorance to understanding of God’s miraculous deeds to the transition from being deaf to hearing again.

Here once more a sense of rationality prevailed at the start, though as Davies repeated the opening aria, the sense of torment began to escalate. As ever there was a constant shifting between peaceful contemplation of God and terror at the world’s snarling horrors; as he sang “Wenn uns Angst und Kummer drücket” (When fear and sorrow oppress us), his voice became more angrily piercing.

This was a work in which the dynamic interaction between Tom Foster on the organ and the rest of the ensemble came to the fore; Foster performed with an agility that helped to convey the protagonist’s optimism as he imagines life with a benign divinity. In the final aria, Davies ravishingly mined the text’s simultaneous emotions of transcendence and yearning, as he begged to be freed from “Das jammerreiche Schmerzensjoch” (“this sorrow-laden yoke of pain”) while dreaming of an idealised eternity.


Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters