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English lute songs

[I] John DOWLAND (1563 - 1626): First Booke of Songes or Ayres
Grace Davidson, soprano; David Miller, lute
rec: April 26 - 28, 2016, Ascot Priory, Berkshire
Signum Classics - SIGCD553 (© 2018) (73'21")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet
Partbook
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All ye, whom love or fortune hath betray'd; Awake, sweet love, thou art return'd; Away with these self-loving lads; Burst forth, my tears; Can she excuse my wrongs; Come again, sweet love doth now invite; Come away, come sweet love; Come, heavy sleep; Dear, if you change; Go, crystal tears; His golden locks time hath to silver turn'd; If my complaints could passions move; My thoughts are wing'd; Now o now I needs must part; Rest a while, you cruel cares; Sleep, wayward thoughts; Thinkst thou then by thy feigning; Unquiet thoughts; Who ever thinks or hopes of love for love; Wilt thou unkind thus reave me; Would my conceit that first enforc'd my woe

[II] "Come sorrow - Songs by Robert Jones, John Dowland & Tobias Hume"
Ensemble Près de votre oreille
rec: June 2018, Condette (F), Château d'Hardelot (Théâtre élisabéthain)
Paraty - 138245 (© 2018) (79'35")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover, track-list & booklet
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John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Dowland's adew for Master Oliver Cromwell [1]; Flow my teares [1]; The Frog Galliard; Alfonso FERRABOSCO II (c1575-1628): Almain III [4]; Coranto IV [4]; Galliard II [4]; Tobias HUME (c1569/79-1645): A Pavin [3]; A Souldiers Galliard [3]; Alas poor man [3]; Fain would I change [3]; The Souldiers Song [3]; Tobacco [3]; What greater grief [3]; Robert JONES (c1577-1617): Come sorrow [2]; Did ever man thus love as I [2]; Fie fie [2]; Love wing'd my hopes [2]; Love's god is a boy [2]; Now what is love [2]; O how my thoughts [2]

Sources: [1] John Dowland, The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1600; [2] Robert Jones, The Second Booke of Songs and Ayres, 1601; [3] Tobias Hume, The First Part of Ayres, 1605; [4] Alfonso Ferrabosco II, Lessons for 1, 2, and 3 viols, 1609

Anaïs Bertrand, mezzo-soprano; Nicolas Brooymans, baritone; Robin Pharo, viola da gamba; Thibaut Roussel, lute The lute song was one of the main genres in England in the renaissance - and in this case, that means not only the 16th century, but also the first half of the 17th century. John Dowland was the first who published a book with songs for voice and lute. In our time, he is almost the only composer whose songs are performed and recorded. Other composers of lute songs are largely neglected. One of them is Robert Jones, who figures prominently at the second disc reviewed here.

The term 'lute song' is probably a less correct term to describe such songs. As the titles of the collections of songs indicate, there were more ways to accompany a song than with a lute alone. Moreover, although most songs can be performed by a single voice, many were published in four parts and allow for a performance by an ensemble. Anthony Rooley, in the liner-notes to the recording of Dowland's first book of songs with his ensemble The Consort of Musicke, pointed out that there are several ways to perform his songs, and that goes for the songs of his contemporaries as well.

Grace Davidson and David Miller have opted for a performance by voice and lute. In such a line-up, every voice type is suitable, and it does not surprise that Dowland's lute songs have been recorded by sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. However, Rooley argues that some songs suggest a women's voice, whereas others may ask for a lower male voice. Dowland's first book comprises 21 songs. Obviously, such collections were first and foremost intended for performance in social circles, rather than to be listened to. It is probably not advisable to listen to a collection of such proportions at a stretch. However, considering the quality and variety of the songs, many will do so anyway. And that is where a performance by a single voice can cause some problems.

A couple of years ago I reviewed a recording of Dowland's second book, performed by Maria Skiba and Frank Pschichholz. I basically liked her way of singing, but after a while I found her performances a bit one-dimensional, for instance due to a lack in variety in tempo. This recording of the first book is a bit better in that respect but not that much. I like the voice of Grace Davidson, just as I like Maria Skiba's, but I miss variety in the course of the performance. To mention an example: there is too little difference in tempo and style of singing between Come, heavy sleep on the one hand, and Away with these self-loving lads on the other, which is especially notable as the latter follows the former immediately.

One point of criticism about Maria Skiba's recording was the lack of ornamentation. Grace Davidson does better in this respect, but it is too little, and often she uses the same kind of ornamentation. More variety in this department would not have been amiss either.

Even so, I recommend this disc, but with some restrictions, and one does well to dose the number of songs to listen to.

The second disc includes songs by Dowland, among them the evergreen Flow my tears, but offers a broader perspective on the world of the lute song. On the one hand it sheds light on one of his contemporaries who is given little attention today: Robert Jones. On the other hand, we get here some other ways of accompanying a song, which attests to the variety in the line-up Anthony Rooley mentions in the liner-notes I referred to above.

Apparently not that much is known about Jones, and that includes the years of his birth and death. The article in New Grove omits any information about his career; it only mentions that in 1597 he graduated BMus in Oxford. In 1601 he contributed a madrigal to the famous collection The Triumphes of Oriana, in honour of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1607 he published a collection of madrigals. But he has become best-known for his lute songs: between 1600 and 1610 he published five books of songs. The performers have selected seven songs from his second book.

It is probably no wonder that his songs have been largely ignored, if one looks at the pretty harsh criticism by the author of the article in New Grove. About his madrigals he states: "Jones's technical limitations prevent him maintaining the few attractive ideas he does display, and these works leave an overall impression of unskilful mediocrity." His assessment of the lute songs is hardly more positive. Apparently the performers have different ideas. It probably depends on what one expects. A comparison with Dowland, as in New Grove, is hardly fair. Dowland was and is famous for a reason. That does not mean that what other composers have written, should be ignored. This disc offers an opportunity to get acquainted with a small part of Jones's oeuvre.

This disc also practises a wider variety of accompaniment. Some songs are performed with lute, others with viola da gamba, mostly played 'the lyra way', and some with the two instruments. In his liner-notes to Dowland's first book, Rooley already pointed out that these two instruments can be used together and independently, according to the character of the song, either on the basis of its content or for purely musical reasons. Both instruments are specifically mentioned in the second book by Jones. As one may expect, the viola da gamba takes a particular important role in the songs by Tobias Hume, a gambist by profession, whose proclamation of the superiority of his instrument to the lute provoked severe criticism from Dowland. The viola da gamba's playing 'the lyra way' is explicitly demonstrated in some pieces by Alfonso Ferrabosco II, another master of the English renaissance who receives less attention than he deserves.

Lastly, most songs are performed with two voices. Jones' songbooks offer songs in different scorings. Some are explicitly intended for solo voice, but there are also duets and some songs come in different scorings, for instance either for solo voice or for four voices.

The voices or Anaïs Bertrand and Nicolas Brooymans are a very good match. The belance between them is just as it should be, and they blend well when they have to. Brooymans does well in some songs by Hume, such as The Souldiers Song and Tobacco. The little tremolo in his voice is regrettable, but not really disturbing. Anaïs Bertrand has a lovely voice, that is perfectly suited to this repertoire. The playing by Robin Pharo an Thibaut Roussel is excellent. That goes for David Miller in the Dowland recording as well.

Unfortunately both recordings use a modern pronunciation of English. I am looking forward to the time that performers consistently turn to a historical pronunciation. That is part of historical performance practice too.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Grace Davidson
Près de votre oreille


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