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Songs of the English Renaissance

[I] "Shakespeare - Come again, sweet love"
The Theatre of Early Music
Dir: Daniel Taylor
rec: June 5 - 7, 2010, London, Henry Wood Hall; June 6, 2010, London, LSO St Luke's
RCA - 88697727222 (© 2011) (58'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D/F
Cover & track-list

anon: The Willow Songdj; John BENNET (1575/80-1599/1614): Weep, O mine eyesbcdef; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Come again, sweet love doth now inviteej; Galliardj; If my complaints could passions movefghj; Semper Dowland, semper dolensj; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): The silver swanadefh; Tobias HUME (1569-1645): Virgin's Musegh; Edward JOHNSON (1572-1601): Come again, sweet nature's treasureadij,adghij; Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633): Full fathom fivefj; Where the bee suckscj; Robert JONES (fl 1597-1615): Farewell, dear lovebcdef; Now what is love?aghij; Sweet Katecdj; Thomas MORLEY (1557/58-1602): It was a lover and his lassej; Sweet nymph, come to thy lovercd; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): If music be the food of love (Z 379)bhj; Now does the glorious day appear (Z 332) (By beauteous softness)dj; Thomas ROBINSON (1589-1609): Fantasieij; Toyeij; John WILSON (1595-1674): Take, O take those lips awaycj

Emma Kirkbya, Carolyn Sampsonb, soprano; Michael Chancec, Daniel Taylord, alto; Charles Daniels, tenore; Neal Davies, bassf; Richard Boothbyg, Richard Campbellh, viola da gamba; Jacob Heringman, lutei; Elizabeth Kenny, lute, theorboj

[II] "Tears of Joy - English Lute Songs and Secular Music"
Zefiro Torna
rec: Sept 2011, Brussels, VRT (Studio Toots)
Et'cetera - KTC 4038 (© 2011) (54'48" / [bonus-CD] 58'58")
Liner-notes: E/F/N
Cover & track-list

anon: Drewries accordes; Have I caught my heav'nly jewel; La Rossignol; My ladies careys dump; Shall I weep or shall I sing; Tobacco; John BARTLET (fl 1610): Of all the birds that I do know; Thomas BREWER (1611-c1660): Mistake me not, I am as cold as hot; Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620): It fell on a summer's day; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Time stands still; Tobias HUME (1569-1645): Tobacco; Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633): Have you seen the bright lily grow; The Flat Pavan & Galliard; With endless tears; Henry LAWES (1596-1662): Slide soft you silver floods; Matthew LOCKE (1621-1677): Pavane; Thomas MORLEY (1557/58-1602): Thyrsis and Milla; Francis PILKINGTON (c1570-1638): Rest, sweet nymphs; Robert RAMSEY (fl 1616-1644): Go perjur'd man! And if you e'er return; Thomas RAVENSCROFT (c1582-c1635): A Round of three country dances in one; Martin said to his man; Thomas ROBINSON (1589-1609): A Song to the Cittern (Now Cupid, look about thee); trad: Butterfly (jig); William WEBB (fl 1620-1656): Pow'rful Morpheus, let thy charms

Cécile Kempenaers, soprano; Didier François, voice, nyckelharpa; Philippe Malfeyt, voice, lute, cittern, theorbo, guitar; Jurgen De bruyn, voice, lute, archlute, guitar

[III] John DOWLAND: "Dowland in Dublin"
Michael Slattery, tenor, shruti box
La Nef
rec: Sept 2010, Mirabel, Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2650 (© 2012) (49'19")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - no translations (synopsis in French)
Cover & track-list

A Galliard; A shepherd in a shade; Away with these self-loving lads; Behold a wonder here; Clear or cloudy; Come again, sweet love; Come heavy sleep; Fine knacks for ladies; His golden locks; Kemp's Jig; Lachrimae pavan; Me, me and none but me; Mistress Winter's Jump; My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe; Now o now I needs must part; O sweet woods; Say, love if ever thou didst find; Sleep wayward thoughts; Time stands still

Grégoire Jeay, flutes; Alex Kehler, violin; Amanda Keesmaat, cello; Betsy MacMillan, viola da gamba; Andrew Horton, double bass; Seán Dagher, cittern; Sylvain Bergeron, lute, guitar; Patrick Graham, percussion

The title of the Theatre of Early Music's disc suggests that we get songs on texts by Shakespeare. That would certainly be possible as many of his plays include texts which were meant to be sung, either by the actors themselves or offstage by singers who participated in the performances. In his liner-notes François Filiatraut deals at length with the connection between Shakespeare and music. It is therefore rather surprising that a large part of the repertoire has little or nothing to do with Shakespeare. According to the text on the back of the tray this disc brings a "selection of beautiful odes and airs dedicated to love and inspired by the Bard's writings (...)". In which way the songs on texts by others than Shakespeare are inspired by his writings is anybody's guess.

As the liner-notes are completely devoted to Shakespeare we receive very little information about the composers who are represented in the programme. Even who the authors of the various texts are remains partly a mystery; only some authors are mentioned in the track-list. The documentation of this production is poor anyway; the sources of the various songs and instrumental pieces are omitted.

The performances are not exactly to write home about. Some solos are done well enough, for instance The Willow Song by an anonymous composer, and Purcell's By beauteous softness, both sung by Daniel Taylor. Charles Daniels sings Dowland's Come again, sweet love by Dowland very well, but I am surprised by the lack of ornamentation. There is some in Morley's It was a lover and his lass, but here his performance is a little too serious. Neal Davies, on the other hand, seems not at home in this repertoire. Robert Johnson's Full fathom five is pathetic, and Dowland's If my complaints isn't any better. His incessant vibrato is totally out of place here. That also damages the contributions of Carolyn Sampson. What is worse, they are also involved in the part-songs, and here they are mainly responsible for a lack of ensemble. In such music you can't just put some singers together who don't work together as a group on a regular basis. There is no coherence in pieces like Bennet's Weep, O mine eyes or Gibbons' The silver swan. I heard the latter for the first time in a performance of The Consort of Musicke, also with Emma Kirkby. Here it has nothing of the beauty of that performance.

In the liner-notes it is mentioned that Dowland never set any texts by Shakespeare. The author refers to the American scholar Mary Springfels who believes that Shakespeare had some antipathy towards Dowland and "was insensible to true melancholy". And what does Elizabeth Kenny play? Semper Dowland, semper dolens, an epitome of Dowland's penchant for melancholy ...

The Belgian ensemble Zefiro Torna celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2011. That was a reason to make another disc, this time with songs and instrumental pieces by English composers of the early 17th century. The programme has no real subject, but the nice thing is that it includes several items which are not that familiar. About the ensemble the booklet says: "Departing from a deep respect for the past, it opts for authentic instruments and a historical approach to sing, play and improvisational techniques".

I beg to disagree, at least as far as this disc is concerned. The use of a nyckelharpa which is a Swedish traditional instrument which only found its way across Europe in the 20th century, is not exactly a token of respect for the past. It is used in almost every piece, but as the original scoring of the compositions is not mentioned it is anybody's guess what exactly it is playing. In most cases it probably improvises, but in Hume's Tobacco it is used as an alternative to the viola da gamba. It fails, of course. In many songs two plucked instruments are used to accompany the voice, and in most cases that seems superfluous.

The liner-notes give some general information about the music from this period but fail to tell the reader anything about the composers on the programme. The documentation is poor here as well: the sources from which the various pieces are taken, are omitted. The notes tell us that the lute-song is a "small-scale enterprise". It is just a shame that the recording doesn't reflect this: the acoustic lacks the intimacy this music needs. But the interpretations aren't always very subtle either, so maybe it is fitting after all.

This recording has little to do with historical performance practice. The same is true for the last disc in this review.

Many people will wonder what the title of the Dowland disc is about. It is explained in the liner-notes by Sylvain Bergeron. "'To my loving countryman, Mr. John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin, in Ireland'. In thus dedicating the song 'From Silent Night' in his collection A Pilgrim's Solace (1612) John Dowland reveals his possibly Irish origins. Was Dowland, often considered the first great English composer, actually Irish? He may have belonged to an old Irish family, the O'Dolans, who settled in Dublin in the middle of the 16th century. The hypothesis that he was Irish seems strengthened by the fact that he was a Catholic, and had an honorary degree from Trinity College in Dublin".

It is notable that this subject is almost completely ignored in the article on Dowland in New Grove by Peter Holman. He only states that "nothing has been found to substantiate (...) W.H. Grattan Flood's claim that he came from Dalkey near Dublin". The arguments of Bergeron are not very convincing. That is certainly the case with his reference to Dowland's Catholic convictions. Some renowned colleagues of his were Catholics as well, like William Byrd, Peter Philips and John Bull, and they were definitely English. Moreover, Holman mentions that Dowland "admitted in 1595 in a long autobiographical letter to Sir Robert Cecil that he had become a Catholic in France". From 1579 to 1583 he served Sir Henry Cobham when he was English resident in Paris.

The suggestion that Dowland had Irish roots is used as an excuse to present a selection from Dowland's oeuvre as Irish folk music. This probably has also to do with Michael Slattery, who seems to have Irish roots as he has previously recorded a disc with the title The Irish Heart. He has also a vivid interest in folk music which has led him to take lessons in Irish folk music with the instrument he plays in some items on this disc. The shruti box is an Indian instrument which is used to accompany the chanting of prayers.

The 19 songs and instrumental pieces on this disc are all arranged for an ensemble of various instruments. Most of them were not used in Dowland's time, like the cello and the double bass. Even the violin was rare. So if you listen to this disc, forget everything you know about the performance practice in Dowland's time, and enjoy this folk approach of his music - or not. The latter goes for me: I have no feeling whatsoever for folk music, and I didn't enjoy this disc at all.

Whether Slattery succeeds in singing like a folk singer is something I can't tell. What I can tell is that he changes the rhythms and even the melodies of most songs quite drastically. In my view much is lost in these performances, vocally and instrumentally. There is no doubt about the competence of singer and players, but their approach to Dowland's music hasn't convinced me at all. I definitely would like to hear Slattery in Dowland songs as they were conceived by the composer.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Michael Slattery
La Nef
The Theatre of Early Music
Zefiro Torna

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