musica Dei donum
John DOWLAND (1562 - 1626): "Lute Songs & Ayres: Elizabeth & Essex Songs"
Kristine Hurst, soprano;
Ben Cohen, lute
rec: [no date or place given]
Centaur - CRC 2866 (© 2007) (55'24")
Behold a wonder here ;
Can she excuse my wrongs ;
Come again, sweet love ;
Daphne was not so chaste ;
Flow, my tears ;
His golden locks time hath to silver turned ;
If my complaints could passions move ;
It was a time when silly bees could speak ;
Lend your ears to my sorrow ;
My thoughts are wing'd with hopes ;
Now, O now I needs must part ;
O sweet woods ;
Say love if ever thou didst find ;
Sorrow, stay ;
Time stands still ;
Weep you no more 
 The Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres of Fowre Partes, 1597;
 The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 2, 4. and 5. parts, 1600;
 The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603)
John Dowland may have been one of the most famous musicians in Europe, at home he was a rather controversial figure. Several times he tried to be appointed as a lutenist at the royal court, but to no avail. The reason may be that he was Catholic, but he also was rather undiplomatic, to put it mildly. In The Compleat Gentleman (1622) Henry Peacham wrote that he "slipt many opportunities in advancing his fortunes". Instead of realising that his ill fortune was often of his own making he attacked others which he thought took away his opportunities or which he considered his inferiors.
Kristine Hurst has chosen songs which she sees as connected to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, one of the men who enjoyed Queen Elizabeth's affections for a while. He appeared at court in 1584 and was executed for treason in 1601. But in between he often felt treated unfairly by the Queen. "Dowland may have written the songs on behalf of Essex, as a plea to the Queen, as Essex infamously and often fell out of her favor". But "it is also possible Dowland may have written them as veiled statements of dissatisfaction with her rule".
Whatever the truth may be, Ms Hurst mentions a number of places in these songs where Dowland directly or indirectly refers to Essex. Why he felt the need to do so is not quite clear. Essex was tolerant towards Catholicism, and Dowland probably also felt sympathy to someone who was treated as unfairly as he thought he himself was. But it is also possible that it was a kind of tribute to Essex who was a great patron of the arts, probably even more so than Queen Elizabeth.
In her extensive programme notes Kristine Hurst regularly quotes lines from the songs. It is therefore rather strange that the lyrics of the songs have not been printed in the booklet. Unfortunately this is only one of the aspects of this production which deserves criticism.
What I find very annoying is the constant vibrato on almost every note. It is historically without foundation and is also very tiring after a while, even more so as there is little variety in the way Ms Hurst performs these songs. The tempi and the dynamics are mostly the same, and after a while this recital starts to become boring. The fact that only songs are performed, without being interspersed by some lute pieces, doesn't make things any better. And there is hardly any rest between individual songs, let alone between the stanzas of a specific song. After a while one starts to long for a bit of a breather. And being labelled as a specialist in the lute songs of John Dowland I am surprised she uses a modern English pronunciation. As enough is known about pronunciation in Elizabethan times there is no excuse for this.
Another problem is the recording: the atmosphere is intimate - which is very appropriate - but slighly different every time. It is as if Ms Hurst moves from one spot to another within the recording venue (which the record company for some reason didn't find necessary to specify). That is in particular striking if one listens to this recording with a headphone.
I won't suggest there is nothing positive to say about this recording. Ms Hurst's diction is very good, and she also is modest in her application of ornamentation. She is definitely right here, as it is well known that Dowland didn't like excessive ornamentation. The choice of songs is one of the positive aspects as well: some songs are very well known, others - like Daphne was not so chaste and It was a time when silly bees could speak - are far less known. I have already referred to the programme notes, which are very interesting and well written.
But these don't make up for the shortcomings as mentioned above. These performances don't make a lasting impression. Many better recordings of Dowland's songs are available.
Johan van Veen (© 2008)