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Countertenor Iestyn Davies, lutenist Thomas Dunford mesmerize in D.C. recital

Part of the enduring appeal of countertenors is the persistent disconnect between the way they sound and the way they look. Iestyn Davies exploited this to great effect in his marvelous recital Tuesday night for Vocal Arts DC at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Speaking to the audience between numbers, explaining the premise of a program that juxtaposed music by the great English composers Purcell, Dowland and Handel with French and German ones, Davies exhibited both intellect and dry wit. “It’s timely,” he said, “that this program celebrating England’s Orpheus also celebrates what we now know and hope to keep as Europe.” (Cue laughter from an audience presumably well versed in the ongoing saga of Brexit.)

Then Davies broke straight back into song with his arresting voice, its sound at once otherworldly and rich, dense and thin, with the clarity and heavy sweetness of plum wine — not quite a woman’s, but certainly not what we associate with a man’s.

Davies is one of today’s leading countertenors, an increasingly crowded field, and he showed why in a varied and engaging program that included songs by Dowland, arias by Handel and, for the second encore, Eric Clapton’s “Tears From Heaven,” challenging another perceptual boundary, the idea that this kind of voice is effective only in so-called classical music.

To call this recital Davies’s is a misnomer, because he shared the stage with the lutenist Thomas Dunford, once styled a teen lute star, who was if anything even more mesmerizing. Louis XIV, he explained to the audience, used to fall asleep to the playing of his own court lutenist, Robert de Visée, and he proceeded to play two pieces by de Visée and Marin Marais that were hypnotic enough to threaten to carry half of the audience into somnolence, the music weaving its own dream-spell like a thread of drugged and perfumed smoke.

Dunford played with such ease and fluidity that he made Bach’s first cello suite, its movements interspersed with songs by the three “Orpheuses” on the program’s second half, sound completely idiomatic and almost as if it were being stroked by a bow rather than plucked with light fingers over the strings. He replicated Handel’s orchestra with equal ease, accompanying Davies in “Ombra cara” and “O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless,” the latter from “Saul” and radiating an air of simple heroism.

The song selection was full of jewels, from such well-known pieces as Purcell’s “Sweeter Than Roses” and “Music for a While” to a self-aggrandizing hymn of praise to Handel’s talent that Handel set, clearly enjoying the spirit of the thing yet not lingering unduly over its exaggerated praise. In a Dowland set on the first half, “Flow My Tears” stood out for its caressing invocation of sadness: a song about depression rather than despair, with a sweet, overpowering heaviness characteristic of this program.

The final song, Purcell’s “An Evening Hymn,” continued the theme of the bedtime song, giving the audience permission to release into sleep with increasingly gentle “Hallelujahs” before rousing them enough to leave with two bracing encores of more recent vintage, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Orpheus With His Lute” and the Clapton piece as a bracing and contrasting send-off.

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