musica Dei donum
John DOWLAND (1563 - 1626): "Ayres"
Gérard Lesne, altoa;
Ensemble Orlando Gibbonsb
rec: Oct 2002, Froville, Prieuré-Froville-la-romane
Naďve - E 8919 (R) (© 2004) (68'50")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover & track-list
Awake, sweet loveb ;
Can she excuse my wrongsab ;
Clear or cloudyb ;
Come again, sweet loveab ;
Come away, come, sweet loveb ;
Come heavy sleepb ;
Fine knacks for ladiesab  ;
Flow my tearsac ;
From silent nightab ;
Go crystal tearsb ;
If my complaintsab ;
If that a sinner's sighsb ;
In darkness let me dwellac ;
In this trembling shadow castb ;
Lasso vita miaab ;
Now, O now I needs must partab ;
Prelude (P 98)c;
Shall I strive with words to moveac ;
Sorrow comeab ;
Tell me, true loveab ;
Thou mighty Godab 
John Dowland,  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;
 R. Dowland, ed, A Musicall Banquet, 1610;
 John Dowland, A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612
Kaori Uemura, descant viol;
Sylvie Moquet, tenor viol;
Emmanuel Balssa, Anne-Marie Lasla, bass viol;
Jacob Heringman, lutec
Gérard Lesne is a distinguished and distinctive artist. His voice is very recognizable and nobody would confuse him with anyone else. He is also a very sensitive artist who clearly feels most at home in intimate and refined music, like solo songs and chamber cantatas. Many years ago he participated in operas, and some of these have been recorded. But after a while he concluded that opera was not his thing, and that he didn't really feel comfortable in that genre. That makes him pretty unique: not every singer - or artist in general - has the intelligence or the sense of self-criticism to take such a decision, in particular as performing in an opera brings considerably more attention than restricting oneself to the smaller scale.
But Lesne's recordings, both with his own ensemble Il Seminario Musicale and with other musicians, like on this disc, prove him right. Not only has he made a whole string of admirable and always tasteful recordings, he also has time and again delved into unknown but first-rate repertoire. And he also seems to have a good ear for first-class singers and players as the people he works with are never out of step with his line of interpretation.
Gérard Lesne mostly sings baroque repertoire from France or Italy, and only on rare occasions does he forays into other repertoire, like music of the renaissance or English and German music. Listening to this disc one could probably argue that it is a good thing that he doesn't perform English repertoire on a regular basis. There is certainly reason for criticism in regard to his pronunciation of the English texts. It is not that there is a specific French flavour about it: if one wouldn't know that he is French one wouldn't guess. But one would immediately sense that he is not a native English speaker. In particular the vowels sometimes sound a bit weird. But what is even more problematic is that his pronunciation is inconsistent. This is a difficult issue anyway, as there are different opinions on how to pronounce music from the Elizabethan era. Some singers use a pronunciation which is assumed to be 'authentic', others play safe and use a modern pronunciation. Whatever one chooses, it should be applied with consistency. That is lacking here, as the various pronunciations of the "r" or the "a" prove. The assistence of a language coach would not have gone amiss.
If one is willing and able to accept the shortcomings in the linguistic department, one is richly rewarded. Gérard Lesne is giving splendid interpretations of Dowland's songs. His approach is different from that of most of his British colleagues in that he performs them in a generally more declamatory manner. He doesn't do so only in those songs which show the influence of the Italian monodic style - In darkness let me dwell and Lasso vita mia - but also in other songs. His expression of elements in the text deserves praise, like in the third stanza of Fine knacks for ladies. Equally impressive is his subtle use of dynamics, like in From silent night. One could argue that sometimes he misses the depth of a song. I was a little disappointed by his performance of Flow my tears. At the same time he avoids overdoing the melancholic character of this song. Another point of criticism is that Lesne is a bit too sparing in his use of ornamentation.
Apart from Gérard Lesne's singing one can also enjoy the playing of the Ensemble Orlando Gibbons which not only support Lesne but also give instrumental performances of some songs. This is in line with the practice of Dowland's days as Elizabeth Kenny argues in the booklet. That can also be said of the decision to perform most songs with viols rather than with lute only.
The programme has been well put together. Of course most songs are well-known: the popularity of Dowland's music is such that it is difficult to find anything which hasn't been recorded a number of times before. On this disc it is probably the splendid and moving song cycle Thou mighty God which is relatively little-known. It is getting a very expressive performance here.
This disc presents a cross-section of the various books of songs Dowland published in his lifetime. If one is able to accept the pronunciation shortcomings one gets superior performances which I have thoroughly enjoyed.
Johan van Veen (© 2009)