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John DOWLAND (1563 - 1626): "Whose heavenly touch"

Mariana Flores, soprano; Hopkinson Smith, lute (soloa)

rec: Oct 2015, Grenoble, MC2
Nave - E 8941 ( 2019) (56'44")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

All ye, whom love of fortune hath betray'd [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]; Fine knacks for ladies [2]; Flow, my tears [2]; Go crystal tears [1]; Go crystal tears [1]a; I saw my lady weep [2]; If my complaints could passions move [1]; In darkness let me dwell [3]; Mignarda (P 34)a; Now, o now, I needs must part [1]; O sweet woods [2]; Sorrow, sorrow stay [2]; Wilt thou unkind thus reave me [1]

[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] Robert Dowland, ed., A Musicall Banquet, 1610

The decades around 1600 were the heydays of lute song in England. It was not an exclusively English genre, but it is quite possible that the repertoire which came to existence in England, was larger than anywhere else. The term 'lute song' is generally used, but we should not overlook the various ways many of these songs could be performed. In 1597 John Dowland published his first book of songs under the title The Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres of Fowre Partes. This is an indication of the options which were open to performers. The songs could be sung by one voice with lute accompaniment, but also with a four-part vocal ensemble without accompaniment or with instruments such as a lute an/or a viol or with a consort of viols playing colla voce. In 1606 Dowland's colleague John Danyel published one book of songs under the title Songs for the Lute, Viol and Voice. The viol has no independent part, but plays the bass line of the lute part. This part can be omitted just as in other song books a viol can participate even when that isn't indicated in the score.

There is no lack of recordings of Dowland's songs, and most of these include performances in the same line-up as they are performed by Mariana Flores and Hopkinson Smith: one voice, accompanied by a lute. Although most of Dowland's songs are pretty well-known, there are certainly some which are not that familiar and are not too often included in recordings. It is a bit of a shame that the two artists have not looked beyond the obvious. All the songs in the programme can be reckoned among the best-known, and quite a number have evergreen status, especially Flow my tears.

The most surprising aspect of this recording is probably that the singer is Mariana Flores, who - as she points out in an interview in the booklet - almost completely confines herself to repertoire from other parts of Europe, in particular Italian music of the 17th and 18th centuries, including opera. This music requires a different approach. Dowland may have been a contemporary of the likes of Giulio Caccini and Claudio Monteverdi, but stylistically his music roots firmly in the stile antico which dominated the late renaissance. In some of his songs, the influence of late renaissance madrigal composers, such as Luca Marenzio, is notable. And In darkness let me dwell, which is - unlike most of Dowland's songs - not strophic, but through-composed, has some traces of the Italian monody. Mariana Flores rightly underlines the differences through a more declamatory interpretation and stronger dynamic shading. In other songs, she sings more legato, although she does not forget to single out some words or phrases.

Obviously, the text is of utmost importance. Ms Flores had to work hard, she admits, to grasp the nature of these songs and pronounce the texts correctly. She had the help of a language coach, and this resulted in a pronunciation which is quite good. Even so, I would not call it entirely idiomatic; sometimes I found it hard to understand the words. Considering the fact that this repertoire was new to her and that she had to learn a correct pronunciation, it is probably too much to expect a historical approach in this department. It is an aspect of performance practice which is still seriously underexposed. The number of recordings of English renaissance lute songs in historical pronunciation is very limited.

The performers have taken some liberties. One may like or dislike them, but Hopkinson Smith is right in pointing out that it was expected from performers in Dowland's time to approach the repertoire with some freedom. Taking this into account, I find it rather odd that Mariana Flores does not add any ornamentation: all the stanzas are sung the same way. There is rightly some differentiation on the basis of the text, but ornamentation is absent. That is in strong contrast to the way Smith treats the lute parts. I also find the treatment of repeats sometimes debatable, for instance in O sweet woods. The first time it is sung twice, the next time it is first played on the lute, and then sung, and the last time it is sung just once.

All things said and done, I certainly have enjoyed this disc. These songs may be very familiar, their quality is such that they never cease to appeal. They are popular for a reason. Even though I would like performers to take care of the songs of Dowland's lesser-known contemporaries, it is hard to resist these brilliant songs. Mariana Flores is a fine singer, and overall I find her quite convincing here. Hopkinson Smith is a seasoned performer on the lute, and he is the best partner Flores could wish for.

Johan van Veen ( 2020)

Relevant links:

Mariana Flores
Hopkinson Smith

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