Grace in favour

Next month CML renews its association with one of our favourite sopranos, Grace Davidson, for the forthcoming concert at St John’s Smith Square, featuring Mozart’s Requiem. Having performed with Grace on numerous occasions in the past, the choir’s thrilled once again to be sharing a platform with such a unique and sought-after soloist.

We interviewed Grace on Zoom last week about her career, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and hosepipes.

Grace Davidson knew she wanted to be a professional singer from the age of 15, though her parents must have had some idea where she was headed when their toddler developed an obsession with their Cats LP. ‘As a small child, I loved this music,’ says Davidson, ‘and would just sing along endlessly. They literally had to shut me up. And then I was taken along to a West End performance when I was three, and off I went – singing along whenever my mum’s hand wasn’t clamped over my mouth!’

After a brief sojourn at Prue Leith’s School of Food and Wine (though she never had a burning ambition to become a chef, she still retains a fondness for cooking), Davidson won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where she won the school’s Early Music Prize as an undergraduate.

Not long after starting at the Academy, Davidson was invited to Germany to record an album of experimental arrangements of Schubert lieder, with a group of jazz musicians providing the accompaniment on instruments not normally associated with the Viennese composer. ‘I just picked the Schubert off the Academy library shelf, and went off to Germany to this rather dingy studio and recorded them. Then they added all these really strange sound effects, including a hosepipe.’ The result is well worth a listen, and set the tone for the eclectic musical journey that followed.

'Even in this golden age of ‘early music’ sopranos, Grace Davidson is outstanding for her seraphic purity and evenness of tone.'
– Richard Wigmore, Gramophone Magazine 2018

Another career strand has taken Davidson all over the globe, sometimes to huge stadiums, as part of the live musical soundtracks performed to accompany film screenings. ‘I have these two worlds that I work in,’ she explains. ‘Obviously I do a lot of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music, and bits of Classical – and that’s very much where my heart is – but in the early days I was asked to step in for a Lord of the Rings performance in Perth, Australia. It was quite last-minute so I just hopped on a plane and went. And now I’ve developed this parallel career, as I’m known to some of the contemporary film composers who tend to like very pure, light voices.’

Although she’s now known primarily as a peerless interpreter of Baroque and Renaissance music, Davidson’s trademark purity of tone has attracted the attention of some notable contemporary composers. Max Richter, whose eight-hour, minimalist epic Sleep Davidson has performed numerous times, is one. Davidson recalls a memorable performance on the Great Wall of China. ‘That was probably the eighteenth or twentieth time we’d done the piece. It’s exactly eight hours long, because that’s ideally the perfect night’s sleep. The performance generally starts at 11pm and finishes at seven, and it’s amazing. There are people sleeping or wandering around as there are no particular rules about how the audience responds. I’m on stage probably at different shifts for about three hours in total, but I don’t sing for all of that time. Looking back at the 2019 China performance now, it’s scary to think that Covid-19 was probably brewing not many miles from where we were performing.’

'In my dreams, I hear Davidson’s soprano echoing through the chambers of my mind'
– Gabriel Wilder, Sydney Morning Herald

Another fruitful collaboration has been with saxophonist Christian Forshaw, whose playing blends perfectly with Davidson’s fluid vocal style. ‘Christian used to make arrangements of beautiful hymns with sax, and after I recorded those, we got to know each other, and we’ve collaborated ever since.’

Despite being hit hard by the pandemic – all her engagements were cancelled for over a year, and she received no financial help from the government – Davidson combined during lockdown with Forshaw on a collection of their favourite pieces, recorded in his home studio. The resulting album, Historical Fiction, is a sublime compilation of works by Handel, Purcell and Dowland, showcasing the performers’ perfectly matching talents. ‘We decided to just take a punt on it and produce it ourselves. I do lots for record companies but we wanted to take control of this project artistically.’

So now onto Mozart. Do her leanings towards the Renaissance and Baroque repertoire – Davidson has worked extensively with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, and other early music specialists – suggest a move away from her comfort zone for the forthcoming concert with CML? ‘I’ve done the Requiem a few times and recorded it with Tenebrae (her husband Nigel Short’s ensemble), and it’s just wonderful,’ she enthuses. But will she be altering her singing style to accommodate Mozart’s more operatic melody lines? ‘I will. St John’s is a bigger environment than I’m used to, with a larger orchestra, and the music’s more textured. I don’t have a big voice, and I’ve never wanted to be an opera singer but I will have to give it my all. I won’t, though, be forcing the sound. I hope I’ll just have to sing out with lots of line and shape, and probably a little more vibrato than I might ordinarily use. I’ll just try to fill the sound and fill the room.’

‘Mozart’s lines are so large and satisfying to sing,’ she continues, ‘but he gives you more space, perhaps, than Bach or Handel, where you’re really often snatching a breath as if you were an oboist or a flautist. I was a fiddle player so I really think in terms of making a line with a bow when I’m singing.’

Mozart and Davidson, we’re sure, will be a sublime combination. And though the magnificent Requiem is the centrepiece of the programme, the choir can’t wait to combine with Grace in the exquisite Laudate Dominum from the Vespers. ‘Although it’s a popular movement, the rest of the piece is fabulous and often gets overlooked. I’m looking forward to performing it in its entirety.’

We’ll second that.

Buy tickets to the Mozart concert here.