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John DOWLAND (1563 - 1626): "Lute Songs"

Damien Guillon, altoa; Eric Bellocq, liuto forte

rec: May 3 - 7, 2009, Paris, Église évangélique allemande
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT 110102 (60'20")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F

anon: The Eglantine Branche; The Gilly Flower; John DOWLAND: A shepherd in a shadea [2]; Awake sweet lovea [1]; Away with these self-loving ladsa [1]; Burst forth, my tearsa [1]; Can she excuse my wrongs?a [1]; Come away, come sweet lovea [1]; Come, heavy sleepa [1]; Dear, if you changea [1]; Fine knacks for ladiesa [2]; Flow my tearsa [2]; Galliard to Lachrimae (PL 46); I saw my lady weepa [2]; Mr Dowland's midnight (PL 99); Now, O now I needs must parta [1]; Say, Love, if ever thou didst finda [4]; Sir John Smith, his Almain (PL 47); Sorrow, staya [2]; Robert JOHNSON (c1583-1633): Almayn; Philip ROSSETER (1567/8-1623): What then is love but mourninga [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] Thomas Campion/Philip Rosseter, A Booke of Ayres, set foorth to be song to the Lute, Orpherian, and Base Violl, 1601; [4] John Dowland, The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603

Does it make sense to record some of the best-known songs of the late renaissance which are frequently performed and have been recorded umpteen times? That depends on whether a singer has something special to offer. The approach of Damien Guillon and Eric Bellocq is different in several respects. But different is not necessarily better. Let me sum up what is on offer here.

First of all, even if you want to record songs by Dowland, you could go for something less obvious than Guillon and Bellocq. There are some songs which are not evergreens - Burst forth my tears, for instance - but these are exceptions. That means there is a lot of competition, and many people will probably think they don't need a fifth or even a tenth disc with the same songs. What speaks in favour of this disc is that we get all the stanzas - which is not self-evident in recordings of lute songs.

Crucial in this interpretation is this phrase in the liner-notes: "Without going so far as to turn their backs on the idea of historical authenticity, the two interpreters do not aim to reconstruct period conditions". This seems to be a way of saying that they feel free to do what they like. Is it really necessary to state once again that an attempt to perform music according to what we know about the historical performance practice is not the same as reconstructing period conditions? One aspect of this performance is the use of rather strong dynamic differences. To me this seems more suitable to baroque repertoire, and in particular the Italian monody of the early 17th century, than to Dowland's songs most of whom stylistically belong to the renaissance. That doesn't exclude dynamic differences, though. The way Guillon and Bellocq practice it is a matter of debate. But that debate is made rather redundant by the decision to record this repertoire in a reverberating church, where every dynamic shade is multiplied. If a recording would have been made in a more intimate surrounding the whole issue would have had more substance.

Such a surrounding would also have made the dialogue between voice and lute much easier. The artists make an issue out of this. "In this recording, the interaction between the two musicians is favoured by the use of the liuto forte, a recently developed hybrid instrument midway between the lute and the theorbo. The instrument's increased volume level encourages dialogue and sets in relief the parts improvised by the lutenist in the verses". If the recording would have been made in a more suitable venue, with a more intimate acoustic, the dialogue between the singer and the lute had come automatically, and there would have been no need to use an unhistorical instrument.

The liner-notes refer to ornamentation and improvisation. The odd thing is that Guillon is rather economical and not very consistent in his addition of ornaments. In Now, O now I needs must part there is surprisingly little of it, although the sequence of stanzas with the same melody begs for it. In other songs I couldn't understand why some lines were ornamented and others were not. Moreover, not all ornaments are well-chosen.

Isn't there anything positive to say about this disc? Yes, there is - Damien Guillon has a very beautiful voice which is a joy to listen to, and I have heard him in other repertoire with great pleasure. But here he and Eric Bellocq largely miss the mark. The English pronunciation also leaves something to be desired. (Listen to Away with these self-loving lads.) The lyrics in the booklet contain several errors.

On balance, this disc may be different from most recordings of the same repertoire, but it is largely unconvincing, and it certainly is not better than what is already on the market.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Damien Guillon
Eric Bellocq

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