musica Dei donum

CD reviews

English secular songs of the 17th-century

[I] "Mr. Dowland's Midnight"
White Sparrow
rec: Feb 18 - 20, 2014, New Haven, CT, Bethesda Lutheran Church
Siba Records - SRCD1021 (© 2017) (45'32")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620): Author of light [8 (I)]; Oft have I sighed [9 (III)]; John DANYEL (1564-1626): Time, cruel time [5]; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): A dreama; Come again, sweet love [1]; Flow, my tears [2]; Go, crystal tears [1]; In darkness let me dwell [7]; Mr Dowland's midnighta; Preludiuma; Think'st thou then by thy feigning [1]; Robert JONES (c1577-1617): And is it night? [6]; Francis PILKINGTON (1565-1638): Lullaby: Rest sweet nymphs [4]; Philip ROSSETER (1568-1638): No grave for woe [3]

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] Philip Rosseter, A Booke of Ayres, set foorth to be song to the Lute, Orpherian, and Base Violl 1601; [4] Francis Pilkington, The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1605; [5] John Danyel, Songs for the Lute, Viol and Voice, 1606; [6] Robert Jones, A Musicall Dreame, or The Fourth Booke of Ayres, 1609; [7] Robert Dowland, ed., A Musicall Banquet, 1610; Thomas Campion, [8] Two Bookes of Ayres, the First contayning Divine and Morall Songs, the Second Light Conceits of Lovers, 1613?; [9] The Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres, 1617?

Debi Wong, mezzo-soprano; Solmund Nystabakk, lute (soloa)

[II] "Clear or cloudy - Purcell, Dowland, Hume"
Benno Schachtner, alto; Jakob D. Rattinger, viola da gamba (soloa); Axel Wolf, lute (solob); Andreas Küppers, harpsichord (soloc)
rec: April 26 - 29, 2017, Roggenburg (D), Klosterbibliothek
Accent - ACC 24333 (© 2017) (59'04")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BLOW (1648/49-1708): Tell me no more you love [6]; William CROFT (1678-1727): Groundc; John DOWLAND (1562-1626): Clear or cloudie sweet as April showring [2]; Come again, sweet love doth now invite [1]; Flow my tears [2]; Mourn, day is with darkness fled [2]; Lachrimae pavanb; Now, o now I needs must part [1]; Tobias HUME (1579?-1645): Fain would I change that note [3]; I am fallinga [3]; Sir Humphreya [3]; Robert JOHNSON (c1583-1633): Have you seen but a while lily grow; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): An Evening Hymn (Z 193) [4]; Fly swift ye hours (Z 369) [5]; Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583) (Music for a while); Pausanias, The Betrayer of his Country (Z 585) (Sweeter than roses)

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] Tobias Hume, The First Part of Ayres, French, Pollish and others together ... with Pavines, Galliards, and Almaines, 1605; Henry Playford, ed., [4] Harmonia Sacra, 1688; [5] The Banquet of Musick, 1692; [6] John Blow, Amphion Anglicus, 1700

For many singers who focus on early music, the English lute song repertoire is a rich source. This genre flourished during the last decade of the 16th and the first quarter of the 17th century. A key figure in the repertoire and as a result in many concert programmes and discs is John Dowland, who published three books of songs between 1597 and 1603. In 1612 his last book of songs came from the press under the title A Pilgrimes Solace. Later in the 17th century other composers also wrote songs, but then mostly not with lute accompaniment, but with a basso continuo part. A considerable number of such songs were originally intended for the theatre. That is also the case with many of Henry Purcell's songs. A number of them were later published separately by his widow, under the title of Orpheus Britannicus.

A large part of the song repertoire from the time between Dowland and Purcell has not been discovered as yet and is not available on disc. The large output of someone like Henry Lawes is just one example. From that perspective it is nice that White Sparrow included a number of songs by lesser-known composers, although at least some of these are certainly not unknown.

This ensemble, consisting of the mezzo-soprano Debi Wong and the lute player Solmund Nystabakk, focuses on Dowland. Some of his best-known songs are included, such as Come again, sweet love and Go, crystal tears. Two of his most expressive songs, Flow my tears and In darkness let me dwell could hardly be omitted. Also in the programme are songs by lesser-known composers, although the songs chosen here probably count among the better-known part of English lute song repertoire.

Robert Jones published one book of madrigals and five books of lute songs. The latter were not universally received with enthusiasm. Even so, the fact that he was invited to contribute to the collection of madrigals for Elizabeth I, The Triumphes of Oriana, suggests that he was respected as a composer. Thomas Campion, though, can be counted among the main composers of songs in Dowland's time, although he was not a professional musician, because of his status as gentleman, who could only be active in music as dilettante. Notable is the fact that he also wrote the poems for his own songs. These are his only compositions, published in five books. He did not contribute to any other musical genre. In 1601 A Booke of Ayres, set foorth to be song to the Lute, Orpherian, and Base Violl came from the press, which included 21 songs each by Campion and Philip Rosseter. The latter was a professional lute player who was in the service of James I from 1603 until his death. He also published a collection of pieces for a broken consort.

Like Rosseter John Danyel was a professional player of the lute. Apart from some lute pieces his oeuvre comprises just one collection of music: the Songs for the Lute, Viol and Voice, which were printed in 1606. Danyel's songs are mostly of a mournful character. Time, cruel time, on a text by John's brother Samuel, is relatively modest in this regard. The disc ends with a song by Francis Pilkington, who was active as a singer in the choir of Chester Cathedral and also made a career in the Church of England; he must also have played the lute. In the field of secular music he published two sets of madrigals and a collection of songs, which can alternately be sung by a solo voice and by four voices to a lute or orpharion and a bass viol.

Debi Wong was a new name to me; she seems to have made a name for herself in performances of early music in Canada. I hope to hear more from her, because I like what I have heard here. She has a very nice voice, which is perfectly suited for this kind of repertoire. She makes the most of the text and the emotions it wants to express, and her articulation and diction are immaculate. As one would expect, the pronunciation is that of modern English. Solund Nystabakk is a sensitive accompanist, and delivers fine performances of the pieces for lute solo.

There are just two issues. The first is that Ms Wong is rather inconsistent in regard to ornamentation. There are quite some (stylish) ornaments in Campion's Oh have I sighed, but none at all in Dowland's Come again, sweet love. Secondly, in the latter song she takes more liberties in regard to tempo than is justified, and her performance is sometimes too declamatory, which seems not to fit this music, which is firmly rooted in the stile antico. I also find it regrettable that she omits the two last stanzas of this song.

Whether she does the same in some other songs is impossible to say, as I did not have the lyrics of the non-Dowland songs at my disposal. The booklet does not deserve that name, as it comes without any liner-notes or - what is more serious - the lyrics. The playing time is also something which could withhold a lover of English lute songs to purchase this disc. That would be a shame, because this is singing and playing at a high level.

The German male alto Benno Schachtner also recorded a programme with English songs. As far as the repertoire is concerned, he has hardly anything unfamiliar to offer. The two main composers are at the outer ends of the chronological line: Dowland and Purcell. The latter's songs come off best here. Sweeter than roses is given a truly theatrical interpretation, and that is well justified, as it was originally part of the incidental music to Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country. Even some songs which were not written for the theatre, are sometimes quite theatrical in character, such as Fly swift, ye hours, which is given a very good interpretation. One of Purcell's most popular songs is Music for a while, which opens the programme. This was part or Purcell's music for the tragedy Oedipus, King of Thebes. Here the performance is rather disappointing. Schachtner does too much with it, for instance by starting a cappella with a long held "music"; only then the basso continuo starts with the ground bass on which this song is founded. I find that rather artificial and I can't see any reason for it. The tempo is also a bit slow, and that is a general tendency here.

It is one of the reasons that I am less enthusiastic about the Dowland songs. Schachtner takes too many liberties in his tempi. Come again, sweet love takes here 5'29"; the Consort of Musicke, for instance, in its ground-breaking recording of the complete works by Dowland, needs just over 4'30". Schachtner also does too much in regard to text expression. As I have indicated above, most of Dowland's songs reflect the stile antico and don't require marked declamation, dynamic accents or strong tempo fluctuations; the latter manifest themselves especially in the last lines. Schachtner's liberties in these departments contrast rather oddly with his sparing use of ornamentation, or even the complete absence of it, such as in Now, o now I needs must part.

There are some nice instrumental contributions from the accompanists, who all do an excellent job here. The Ground by William Croft is one of the very few less familiar items on this disc. The two Hume pieces are also welcome as only a few of his compositions are really well known. His oeuvre has to be counted among the best written for viola da gamba solo.

The disc ends with one of Purcell's most impressive pieces, An Evening Hymn. It receives here a really outstanding performance, and confirms my impression that Schachtner is more at home in baroque repertoire than in music from the renaissance period. His very fine voice can really blossom in this piece, and he uses it intelligently and effectively to bring out the soul's trust and confidence that is expressed in the text.

As Schachtner is not English one can hardly expect him to care about a historical pronunciation of the texts. Even his English-speaking colleagues don't, so one cannot blame him for that. As far as I can tell his English is impeccable.

Although I am not entirely satisfied with this disc, I have certainly enjoyed much that is on offer here, thanks to Schachtner's nice voice as well as the fine contributions of his colleagues. And the music is irresistable, of course. There is certainly not a dull moment. This disc is well worth being investigated.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Benno Schachtner
Andreas Küppers
Jakob D. Rattinger
Axel Wolf
White Sparrow

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