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Old and new delights

31 January 2014

Roderic Dunnett hears classic recordings on CD - and some that may be classics of the future


STILL only 34, Iestyn Davies is one of the miracles of the countertenor voice. Both chorister and choral scholar at St John's, Cambridge, he jumped through hoops for George Guest, and then for Christopher Robinson, with matchless Wells Cathedral School squeezed in between. Like Robin Blaze, he tried singing countertenor at school almost by chance; now he reigns supreme, alongside James Bowman, Andreas Scholl, Michael Chance, and David Daniels.

I still have a yen for Robert King's collation with Bowman (Hyperion CDH55419). But when you hear Davies (on Vivat 105) sing "Eternal source of love divine", from Handel's Ode for Queen Anne's penultimate birthday (1713), it has everything you could yearn for. Asking Her Majesty to "shed a lustre on the day" is a bit like those obligatory prefaces to letters which fawning 18th-century courtiers wrote to lords and monarchs before pleading for a pay rise.

Treasures galore fill this disc. They include orchestral wonders such as the Overture to Samson, with the trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins in the shimmering Allegro. Out of this world is "Thou wilt bring them" from Israel in Egypt. Handel employed every kind of female or castrato voice; and yet, interestingly, this was written for a boy alto, or at least one en route from boy treble to (ultimately) a famous bass. It melts you, utterly.

I have the odd reservation (over-clipped short phrases, perhaps); but when Davies delivers a gorgeous long line, as when he is matched with the sublime Carolyn Sampson in a scintillating Solomon-Sheba duet, I am swept away. The King's Consort brings state-of-the-art period playing. The rehearsal pictures are fun, too.

From York, where Davies was born in 1979, to Cornwall, where a Regent disc caught my attention belatedly: "Do not be afraid" (REGCD 400) - something of a chart-topper since - encompasses choral music by Philip Stopford,two years older than Davies, anda former Westminster Abbey chorister, organ scholar at Truro and Canterbury, and assistant at Chester, recorded beautifully by the choir of Truro Cathedral under Christopher Gray.

Four boy solos feature; some voices may be breaking, or have broken, by now. They are of fine quality, assured and distinctive, and the men's, too, point to the ongoing high quality of Gray's choir-training at Truro - something that will last these boys for life.

Stopford's anthems were largely written for Truro, or for St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast. Harmonies are on the straightforward side; it is the shaping that more often impresses. Gerard Markland's Isaiah paraphrase "Do not be afraid" (used ata baptism) is especially touching. One boy sustains a staggering solo through six verses of "Hope" (with its inspired text by the Revd Carl Daw, a US Episcopalian, 70 this year): a beautiful, spare monody intoned over timpani - a striking Psalm 23 for our era. There is nothing on this disc that might not be of some use to cathedral or, indeed, parish choirs up and down the country.

Truro has a magnificent Father Willis organ, maintained by Mander's. A solo recital by Gray's assistant, Luke Bond, on REGCD 386 also brings pleasures, from vibrant Guilmant (the First Sonata) via filmic Walton (superb fugue) to Grainger's Handel in the Strand, full of fire and strength, subtlety and wit. David Bednall's Magna voce cane et magno cum jubilo does just that - thrillingly explodes. Bednall's "Noe, noe" leads off the Truro choir's attractive contemporary offering, issued just before Christmas: REGCD 422.

More importantly, the reissue, on Selby Abbey's own label, in aid of its organ appeal, of the former papal organist Fernando Germani's legendary recital there (SAOA 001) is a masterstroke: Franck (the two outer chorales, sufficient to eclipse Cavaillé-Coll), Liszt B-A-C-H, and, famously, Frescobaldi produced one of the most knockout, blazing organ discs of its era (on the Hill, later Hill, Norman & Beard, 1961). It shattered me when I was 13, and still does. Scintillating.

Vivat Records: www.vivatmusic.com
Regent Records: www.regent-records.co.uk
Selby Abbey Recording: www.selbyabbeyorganappeal.org.uk/germani.html

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