Iestyn Davies and Academy of Ancient Music

Queen’s Hall

Svend McEwan-Brown

five stars

J S BACH eclipses most of his contemporaries, but perhaps Georg Philip Telemann has more right than most to feel aggrieved about it. Prolific and acclaimed in life, his neglect since death is proof that posterity just isn’t fair. 2017 is the 250th anniversary of that death, so it was good to hear The Academy of Ancient Music pair the two men, giving Telemann the most time. Did it tilt the scales in his favour? Yes and no. The inexhaustible inventiveness of both is awe-inspiring. Telemann’s earthy Overture-Suite TWV55:D15 is pure enjoyment, a lovely sequence of dances that AAM played with zest. Great to hear the wonderfully woody baroque winds pitched against the strings. Sadly, his trio sonata was way less memorable. It had the misfortune to be followed by Bach’s Cantata BWV169: from the first solo violin flourish, Bach has your ear in a way Telemann simply does not.

Bach wrote astounding music for the alto voice: remarkably compelling and remarkably difficult. He must have known some amazing singers. The two cantatas here tested Iestyn Davies to the full: the first (BWV54), demanded a stentorian lower register to project every joyless note of its fire and brimstone sermon against sin (apt in this former church); the second (BWV169) ranged widely, right up to sweet top notes. Davies handled both superbly. His voice is all you could hope for: plangent, expressive, agile and evenly produced throughout. The utter highlight of the morning was an astonishing aria, Stirb in mir from BWV 169. Bach sets a verse longing for freedom from earthly desires to mesmerising, long vocal lines over disarming harmonies, so phrases turn and twist to arrive in unexpected places. Davies’ phrasing, legato – and breath control – were outstanding.