Michael Nyman has highlighted the special qualities of the countertenor throughout his career. In the intimate acoustic of Milton Court Iestyn Davies and Fretwork gave a summary of his works for this voice-type and viol consort, interspersed with miniature masterpieces by Purcell.
The relationship between time and music is exploited in No Time for Eternity (2016), settings of poems by Robert Herrick of aphoristic intensity. The chromatic arpeggios set a melancholy air which pervaded the recital, offset by Davies’s warm, penetrating legato. Rhythmic changes, sometimes abrupt, alternate with descriptive figures, sometimes lyrical, and mechanical in the short concluding section comparing Man to the motion of a watch winding down. Fretwork and Davies excelled in an intelligent and theatrical performance with especially sensitive use of dynamics.
Nyman’s debt to the Baroque is well-known, much of his writing combines features of seventeenth-century compositional patterns and Minimalism. The centrepiece of the concert was a commission for Fretwork, Music after a While, a play on the Purcell song, ‘Music for a While’, which Davies sang with plangent astuteness. The Nyman involves an emphatic rhythmic pulse and unresolved quotations and chord progressions from the Purcell; it failed to cohere. The instrumental Balancing the Books (1999), originally composed for the Swingle Singers, was far more successful. Fretwork conveyed its essential playfulness, always energetically moving forward.
There was a problem with the structure of the recital; the alternating of Nyman’s song repertoire, some of which had been written for a children’s animated film about the life of Anne Frank, with some of Purcell’s most powerful lyrics, forced a comparison which was not comfortable. Purcell’s Fantasies and songs ‘An Evening Hymn’ and the encore ‘Oh Solitude’ overshadowed the Nyman works and even Davies’s immaculate diction and natural dramatic gifts could not animate the Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence.