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"Orpheus in England - Dowland & Purcell"

Emma Kirkby, sopranoa; Jakob Lindberg, lute

rec: Nov 2008, Länna kyrka
BIS - CD-1725 (© 2010) (75'19")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & tracklist

John DOWLAND (1563-1626): A Fantasie (P 1a) [5]; A shepherd in a shadea [2]; Away with these self-loving ladsa [1]; By a fountain where I laya [3]; Come, heavy sleepa [1]; Disdain me stilla [6]; If that a sinner's sighsa [6]; In darkness let me dwella [4]; Lachrimae (P 15); Lend your ears to my sorrowa [3]; Preludium (P 98) [5]; Tarleton's Riserrectione (P 59); The Early of Essex, his Galliard (P 42) [5]; Toss not my soula [2]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): A New Ground in e minor (Z T682) [7]; A New Irish Tune in G 'Lulliburlero' (Z 646) [7]; A New Scotch Tune in C (Z 655) [7]; Bonduca or The British Heroine (Z 574) (Oh lead me to some peaceful gloom)a; Dido and Aeneas (Z 626) (Echo Dance of the Furies; The Groves Dance); Fly swift, ye hours (Z 369)a; From silent shades, and the Elysian groves (Bess of Bedlam) (Z 370)a; Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583) (Music for a while)a; She loves and she confesses too (Z 413)a; The Indian Queen (Z 630) (They tell us that you mighty powers above)a; The Old Batchelor (Z 607) (Hornpipe in e minor); Trumpet Tune in C (Z 678); What a sad fate is mine (Z 428b)a [8]

Sources: John Dowland, [1] The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597; [2] The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1600; [3] The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603; Robert Dowland, ed, [4] A Musicall Banquet, 1610; [5] A Varietie of Lute Lessons, 1610; [6] John Dowland, A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612; Henry Purcell, [7] The Second Part of Musick’s Hand-maid, 1689; [8] Orpheus Brittannicus, Book 1, 1698

The mythological singer Orpheus was frequently used as a metaphor for famous performers or composers in the baroque era. The Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, for instance, was nicknamed 'Orpheus of Amsterdam'. In England both John Dowland and Henry Purcell were honoured by being compared to Orpheus. Hence the title of this disc, 'Orpheus in England', in which pieces from both masters are performed.

They have several things in common. First of all, they were both individual characters whose oeuvre in some ways differs from that of their immediate predecessors and most contemporaries. They were also influenced by continental fashions, French and Italian. The works of Dowland and Purcell show an amount of expression which is quite unique. It is particularly melancholy which is associated with John Dowland. This has sometimes led to the assumption that he himself was melancholic. But it was rather something like a fashion than a personal feature. It is also present in the oeuvre of many other composers from around 1600, even though it is more marked in Dowland's music than in that of others. Come, heavy sleep and In darkness let me dwell are among the most striking specimens of this aspect of his oeuvre. In particular the latter also shows the influence of the Italian monodic style. It is not a strophic song like most of Dowland's lute songs, and contains some rhythmic freedom which is unusual in English music of his time. In their liner-notes Emma Kirkby and Jakob Lindberg also refer to French influence, for instance in the use of syncopation in Dowland's first book of songs. His contemporary Thomas Campion criticised the fashion for songs "bated with fugue and chained with syncopation".

Henry Purcell was also unique in the theatrical character of his music. In that respect there is no real difference between his vocal oeuvre and his instrumental works. The trio sonatas are just as expressive as the many songs which were part of Purcell's music for the theatre. The programme also contains some independent songs which show basically the same features, like Fly swift, ye hours. Today the theatrical character of some songs isn't always recognized, like Music for a while. It is from the incidental music to Oedipus: "The action of 'Oedipus' required a necromancer to call up the spirit of the dead king, and discover the terrible truth about his successor, but in Purcell's hands this became a song cherished for centuries since, as a paean to the power of music to challenge even death". This being so one could argue that the song's true character can only be communicated if it is performed as part of the play. Fly swift ye hours is an example of a song in which the text is vividly depicted.

From silent shades, and the Elysian groves, also known as Bess of Badlam is a so-called mad song: a bereaved lover is driven mad with grief, and, "either in mind or in fact, already dead and dwelling in the underworld; and that grim place is evoked again in the bass line of the enduring Music for a while". Purcell frequently made use of a basso ostinato, like in She loves and she confesses too and What a sad fate is mine.

The songs are interspersed with pieces for lute solo. Dowland was one of the most virtuosic lute players of his time and has left a large oeuvre for his instrument. Jakob Lindberg could easily find some pieces to play, among them the famous Lachrimae. Purcell has left no music for lute. Lindberg has chosen some works for harpsichord, several of which are transcriptions of pieces from theatre music. The very fact that Purcell himself made such transcriptions can serve as a justification of Lindberg's practice.

Both Emma Kirkby and Jakob Lindberg are seasoned performers of this kind of repertoire, and have often worked together. The result is an exquisite recording which is hard to surpass. The treatment of the text by Ms Kirkby is impeccable, and her expression refined rather than demonstrative. In every song some words are singled out in a most subtle way which requires attentive listening. Dowland's Come, heavy sleep is definitely the highlight of this disc. But a more lighthearted song like Away with these self-loving lads comes off equally well. In the Purcell programme only From silent shades can't fully satisfy. A song like this needs a more dramatic and stronger voice. In a way the realisation of the basso continuo with a lute gives a different dimension to Purcell's songs.

The many fans of Emma Kirkby don't need any encouragement to purchase this disc. But even those who have some reservations in regard to her singing will have to acknowledge that in this kind of repertoire Ms Kirkby is still second to none.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Emma Kirkby
Jakob Lindberg

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