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John DOWLAND (1563 - 1626): Lachrimae

[I] Les Voix Humaines; Nigel North, lute (soloa)
rec: July 2017, Mirabel (Québec, CA), Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2761 (© 2018) (59'04")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Captaine Piper his Galliard; Dowlands Adew for Master Oliver Cromwell [1]; Galiard to Lachrimaea; Lachrimae Pavana; Lachrimae or Seven Teares; M. George Whitehead his Almand; M. Henry Noell his Galliard; M. John Langtons Pavan; Sir John Souch his Galliard; The Earle of Essex Galliard; Were every thought an eyea [2]

Sources: [1] The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 2, 4. and 5. parts, 1600 [2] A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612

Mélisande Corriveau, Felix Deak, Margaret Little, Rafael Sanchez-Guevara, Susie Napper, viola da gamba

[II] Opera Prima Consort
Dir: Cristiano Contadin
rec: April 17 - 19, 2018, Lugano, Auditorium Stelio Molo
Brilliant Classics - 95699 (© 2019) (59'32")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giulia Genini, recorder; Fiorenza de Donatis, Andrea Rognoni, violin, alto viola; Cristiano Contadin, Marco Casonato, Rodney Prada, Noelia Reverte, Rosita Ippolito, viola da gamba; Miguel Rincon, lute


In 1676, the English lutenist, singer, composer and writer Thomas Mace (1612/13-?1706), published a book under the title Musick's Monument, or A Remembrancer Of the Best Practical Musick, both Divine and Civil, that has ever been known, to have been in the World. It is a description of a musical world that had gone: the world we call 'Renaissance', which held its ground in England longer than anywhere else. The book comprises three parts. The first is devoted to the polyphony written for the liturgy of the Church of England, the second is about the lute, and the third discusses the viol ("The Generous Viol, in Its Rightest Use") and performance practice in general. In the latter part Mace mentions several of the best composers of consort music. It is rather remarkable that he does not mention John Dowland, who today is considered one of the main composers of such music, not the least due to his Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, published in 1604.

This cycle of seven pavans is considered the ultimate expression of what was the fashionable disease of that time: melancholy. There is much speculation about these pavans and what exactly they mean. It is often suggested that Dowland himself suffered from melancholia. The title of one of his pieces, Semper Dowland semper dolens, 'Dowland the ever-doleful', gives some food for this thought. However, whether he was a specific melancholic person is still a subject of debate among scholars. It should not be overlooked that the collection not only includes sad pavans but also much more upbeat stuff.

The popularity of this collection explains why there are so many recordings available. One may wonder what the two recordings to be reviewed here can bring to the table that is not already available in one or more of these productions. Obviously, I don't know every recording in the catalogue, and some aspects of the performances by Les Voix Humaines and the Opera Prima Consort respectively may not be new. However, both have some features which deserve to be mentioned, and which for some lovers of consort music may be a reason to add one or both to their collection or, rather, stay away from them.

As far as performance practice is concerned, Les Voix Humaines are the most 'conventional', so to speak. The pavans are played by a consort of viols and lute, just as the title-page says. However, two things are notable with regard to the way the programme has been put together. There are reasons to assume that the seven pavans are meant as a cycle. The titles and the thematic connection point in that direction, and they are also placed as such in the collection. From that perspective, it is questionable that Les Voix Humaines decided to alternate them with other pieces. The first pavan, Lachrimae antiquae, is followed by two different pieces, and then we get Lachrimae antiquae novae. I find this decision rather unlucky, especially because of the emotional nature of these pavans. Every time the mood is disturbed by pieces of a more uplifting nature. Moreover, whereas most recordings include the entire collection, here the performers decided to make a selection, and add pieces from other sources, such as Dowland's Adew for Master Oliver Cromwell from The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres. The programme also includes several lute pieces, such as the Lachrimae Pavan, the original version of this work. From that angle, this recording can not be considered a direct competition to existing recordings. In a way it has both less and more to offer than most recordings of the Lachrimae or Seven Teares.

The Italian ensemble Opera Prima Consort follows the conventional habit of performing the entire collection, in the order in which it was published. Here the difference with other recordings is the line-up. In some of the pieces, the upper parts are played on violins instead of treble viols. This is entirely in line with the title-page, which says that the pieces are "set forth for the Lute, Viols, or Violons". Whether one likes the use of violins is a matter of taste. Most lovers of these pieces may prefer treble viols. A performance with violins is definitely something one has to get used to. One just wonders whether it would be better to consistently play violins instead of only in some of the pavans. Quite controversial is the participation of a recorder. In Lachrimae amantis one of the parts is played on a tenor recorder, and elsewhere a treble recorder takes part in the performances. According to the liner-notes, the ensemble's director, Cristiano Contadin "notes that the recorder has long had an affective association with music of lamentations in works such as the early Actus Tragicus of Bach." The participation of a recorder seems to me highly questionable. There is no indication whatsoever that a performance with a 'broken consort' was something Dowland had in mind, neither here nor in other consort music. Contadin also forgets the difference in nature between the renaissance and the baroque versions of the recorder. The affects the baroque recorder is able to produce are indeed amply illustrated in Bach's cantata BWV 105, but I have never noted anything of this kind in its renaissance predecessor. The very limited dynamic possibilities of the renaissance recorder are in strong contrast with those of the viola da gamba.

There is another aspect of performance practice which need to be mentioned. "The polyphony of the Seven Teares is progressively less elaborate through its course, and Contadin reflects this through the practice of diminution which divides long notes into shorter values in a practice of embellishment that was common and indeed taken for granted in Dowland's time". Basically this means that Contadin aims to 'correct' the lack of elaborate polyphony. Why some performers think they know better than the composer is a mystery to me. There is certainly every reason to add embellishments, and that was indeed expected from performers. That is also the way Les Voix Humaines play these pieces. What happens in the performances by Contadin and his colleagues is fundamentally different. The diminutions result in the melodic lines, which are so characteristic of the pavans, being distorted in the repeats in such a way that they are hardly recognizable anymore. I am sure that this is not what Dowland intended.

The tempi are mostly rather swift, certainly in comparison with those of Les Voix Humaines. The most striking difference is the Lachrimae tristes, which takes 4'20" in the Italian performance, whereas Les Voix Humaines need 5'00". Overall, their performance is more incisive and is more successful in communicating the melancholic mood than Opera Prima Consort, even though the latter plays very well.

Given that so many recordings of these pieces are available, it makes little sense to compare these recent recordings. Both have something to offer which may interest the lovers of Dowland's music. The main issue in the Atma production is the way the pavans are played, but that can easily be 'corrected' by the CD player or with any other medium one may use to listen to this recording. Some may like to become acquainted with the approach of the Opera Prima Consort. In the end, though, I find it rather unsatisfying as I feel it does not real justice to the meaning of Dowland's sad pavans.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Nigel North
Les Voix Humaines

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