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GRAMOPHONE ( 05/ 2019)
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Reviewer: Alexandra Coghlan

Last year the American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo gave us a recital pairing music by Philip Glass and Handel (Decca). Now the British countertenor Iestyn Davies takes his turn straddling the minimalism/Baroque divide, bringing together works by Michael Nyman and Henry Purcell in a slick new collaboration with the viol consort Fretwork. Neither is, of course, the first to make the connection. But while the two repertoires may share some of the same musical processes, their composers deploy them to opposite effect, as ‘If’ neatly demonstrates.

The recording brings together songs by Purcell (all arranged for voice and viol consort by Fretwork’s own Richard Boothby) with a selection of Nyman miniatures including episodes from The Diary of Anne Frank, Fretwork commissions The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence and Music after a While (a premiere recording), as well as two more extended musical sequences – the song-cycle No Time in Eternity and Balancing the Books, arranged here for viols.

The Nyman performances are exemplary – crisp and cleanly articulated from Fretwork and dispatched by Davies with a vacant, unrippled purity that is so essential to the music, and must be hard-won for this instinctively expressive performer. The soundtrack extracts are painfully sweet in the ear but there’s a wonderfully straight-faced swagger (and, finally, some declamatory drama) to Innana, and the aphoristic Herrick cycle No Time in Eternity comes off beautifully. Most interesting, though, is Balancing the Books. Originally composed for the Swingle Singers, Boothby’s wordless arrangement for Fretwork’s five viols draws strange and wonderful colours from the consort – now a Bluegrass or Appalachian folk band or grinding accordion, now a glossy string quartet.

It’s hard to believe that Purcell left no songs with viol consort accompaniment, and Boothby’s meticulous arrangements offer a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Rather than resting on the cool firmness of a harpsichord, ‘Evening Hymn’ comes cradled in string warmth and lulling legato, while ‘Music for a while’ takes on a striking new darkness, needle-point dissonances elegantly twisted in the wound. Best, though, is ‘O solitude’, with its chilly opening plucked accompaniment. All are immaculately sung by Davies, whose Peter Pan voice sounds fresher and smoother than ever.

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