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John Dowland and his time

[I] John DOWLAND (c1563 - 1626): "The Art of Melancholy"
Iestyn Davies, alto; Thomas Dunford, lute
rec: April 6 - 8, 2013, Dunwich (Suffolk), Potton Hall
Hyperion - CDA68007 (© 2014) (76'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations

All ye whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed [1]; Behold, a wonder here [3]; Burst forth, my tears [1]; Can she excuse my wrongs [1]; Come again, sweet love doth now invite [1]; Come away, come sweet love [1]; Come, heavy sleep [1]; Flow, my tears [2]; Fortune my foe (P 62); Go, crystal tears [1]; I saw my lady weep [2]; In darkness let me dwell; Lachrimae pavan (P 15); Mrs Winter's Jump (P 55); Now, O now I needs must part [1]; Say, Love, if ever thou didst find [3]; Semper Dowland semper dolens (P 9); Shall I strive with words to move [5]; Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears [2]; The Frogg Galliard (P 23); Time stands still [3]

[II] "A Song for my Lady - Lute & Consort Songs"
Julian Podger, tenor; Lee Santana, lute; Sirius Viols
rec: Feb 5 - 8, 2013, Colnrade, St. Marien-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88883722822 (© 2014) (71'22")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

William BYRD (1543-1623): Ambitious love; The match that's made; Thou poet's friend; Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620): Follow thy fair sun; Harden now thy tired heart [6]; O never to be moved [7]; John DOWLAND (c1563-1626): Aloe; All ye whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed [1]; Can she excuse my wrongs [1]; Come again, sweet love doth now invite [1]; Come away, come sweet love [1]; Fie on this feigning [1]; Flow not so fast, ye fountains [1]; Go, crystal tears [1]; If my complaints [1]; La mia Barbara; Mignarda; Mrs. Vaux's Gigge; Weep you no more, sad fountains [3]; Were every thought an eye [5]; John DOWLAND, arr Francis CUTTING (fl 1571-1596): Awake, sweet love; Thomas FORD (c1580-1648): Fair sweet cruel [4]; Robert JOHNSON (c1583-1633): Tell me, dearest, what is love

[Sirius Viols] Hille Perl, Frauke Hess, Julia Vetö, Marthe Perl, viola da gamba

Sources: John Dowland, [1] The Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres of Fowre Partes, 1597; [2] The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 2, 4. and 5. parts, 1600; [3] The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603; [4] Thomas Ford, Musicke of Sundrie Kindes, 1607; [5] John Dowland, A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612; Thomas Campion, [6] Two Bookes of Ayres, the First contayning Divine and Morall Songs, the Second Light Conceits of Lovers, 1613; [7] The Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres, 1617


The lute song was a very popular genre in England in the decades around 1600, the Elizabethan and the Jacobean periods. A large number of songs were written and many of them were also published, which suggests that they were sung across the country. John Dowland considerably contributed to the genre with four books of songs, many of which could also be performed with a larger ensemble, four instance four singers or a voice and a consort of viols. In today's perception he overshadows his contemporaries, and he is much better represented on disc than other composers of his era.

The two discs to be reviewed here are different in several respects, one of them the choice of repertoire. Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford have confined themselves to Dowland, and if you are interested in the lute song repertoire you won't hear anything you haven't heard before. The title of their disc is telling: 'The Art of Melancholy'. It was "the characteristic temperament of the age", as Roger Savage states in his liner-notes. Many pieces in Dowland's oeuvre reflect this state of mind, and he even wrote a piece for lute with the title Semper Dowland semper dolens, 'Dowland the ever-doleful'. It has created the common opinion that Dowland himself suffered from that disease, but that is questionable. Savage points out that some texts he set to music are in fact put into the mouth of different people, mostly personalities from the aristocratic circles in which he moved. As an example he refers to the song Can she excuse my wrongs which "expresses the Earl of Essex's frustration at [Queen] Elizabeth's reluctance to commit herself to him". This explains that the instrumental version of this song is called The Earl of Essex Galliard. In general one has to be careful to make a connection between a composer and the music he has written. Before the romantic era music was generally not written to express personal views or feelings of the composer.

Savage also points out that it is not only trouble and affliction in Dowland's music, and that there are also some more upbeat pieces. That comes hardly to the fore in the programme which Davies and Dunford have put together. From that perspective their disc is a little one-sided. It results in a certain amount of monotony which is even enhanced by the way Davies sings. The tempi are mostly rather slow which may be justified because of their content, although a little more variety would not have been amiss. The interpretation is not very differentiated as he hardly ever singles out specific words or colours his voice. True, this is no baroque music, but the influence of the Italian madrigals of Dowland's time - he was a great admirer of Luca Marenzio - is clearly noticeable. In darkness let me dwell shows some traces of the modern Italian monody, but in Davies' performance you won't notice that. Another issue is ornamentation: Davies is very reluctant to add ornaments, and if he does, it seems rather arbitrary and lacks consistency.

That said, his voice is very beautiful and excellently suited for this repertoire. Thomas Dunford is a sensitive accompanist and plays some fine solos, especially the Lachrimae. It is probably advisable not to play this disc at a stretch.

The second disc is quite different. First of all, although Dowland is the central figure in the programme, he is put into his historical context as some of his lesser-known contemporaries are also represented. William Byrd is well-known, but his songs belong to the little-known part of his oeuvre. Robert Johnson, Thomas Campion and Thomas Ford have remained in Dowland's shadow and deserve to be recorded more often. The programme has been arranged as a kind of story of a lover: "Easily available to the emotional grasp of the listener, it was possible to arrange them into imagined scenes of love found - love lost - self lost - self found - celebration, progressively suggesting the inner capture, trial and liberation of a made-up character", Podger writes in his liner-notes.

That results in a greater variety in content. Variety also comes through the different ways the songs are accompanied: mostly with lute - although Julian Podger also sings some stanzas without any accompaniment -, sometimes with an additional viola da gamba, or with a consort of viols, in particular the songs by Byrd. These are the earliest pieces, and are dominated by counterpoint, not fundamentally different from his motets. Podger's interpretation is very different from Davies's. He pays more attention to the text, and underlines the connection between this English repertoire and contemporary Italian music. He is not afraid of dynamic accents and colours his voice according to the text. A specially interesting part of his performances is the pronunciation. "Various ideas have been asserted by scholars on the precise pronunciation of Elizabethan/Jacobean English - not really surprising given the many regional and probably overlapping conventions of the time. The idea here is of course not to own any 'truth' of authentic pronunciation - impossible anyway - rather to ground the music in a generic spoken sound world of the time". The differences with modern English as used by Iestyn Davies are huge, and allows for a fresh look at texts one thought to know. It is indeed creating a different "sound world" as pronunciation has a notable effect on how the music sounds.

Because of the selection of music and the way the programme has been arranged this disc is a winner anyway. Add to that the fine performances by Julian Podger, Lee Santana and Sirius Viols and the use of a historically oriented pronunciation, and one will understand that this is one of the most interesting recordings of English renaissance music of late.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Iestyn Davies
Lee Santana

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