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John DOWLAND (1563 - 1626): Songs and lute pieces

[I] "Tell me true love"
Joel Frederiksen, bass, lute; Ensemble Phoenix Munich
rec: Nov 15 - 17, 2015, Starnberg-Percha (D), Malteserstift St. Josef (chapel)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985360712 ( 2016) (62'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

A Fancy (P 73); All ye whom love or fortune [1]; Away with these self-loving lads [1]; Can she excuse my wrongs [1]; Dear, if you change [1]; Fine knacks for ladies [2]; Flow my tears [2]; From silent night [5]; If that a sinner's sighs [5]; In darkness let me dwell [4]; Lady if you so spite me [4]; My Lord Chamberlain his Galliard (P 37); Praeludium (P 98); Say, Love, if ever thou didst find [3]; Shall I strive with words to move [5]; Sleep wayward thoughts [1]; Tarleton's Resurrection (P 59); Tell me, true Love [5]; The Frog Galliard (arr Ziv Braha) (P 23); The lowest trees have tops [3]; When Phoebus first did Daphne love [3]

Alexandra Polin, Elizabeth Rumsey, Domen Marincic, viola da gamba; Ziv Braha, Ryosuke Sakamoto, lute

[II] The Second Booke of Songs of Ayres
Maria Skiba, soprano; Frank Pschichholz, bass, lute
rec: August 1 - 5, 2013, Warsaw, Witold Lutoslawski Studio
Dux - 1192 ( 2013) (74'03")
Liner-notes: E/P
Cover & track-list

[2] A shepherd in a shade; Clear or cloudy; Come ye heavy states of night; Die not before thy day; Dowlands adew for Master Oliver Cromwell (P 13); Faction, that ever dwells in court; Fine knacks for ladies; Flow my tears; Humour say what mak'st thou here; I saw my lady weep; If floods of tears; Mourn, mourn, day is with darkness fled; Now cease my wand'ring eyes; O sweet woods; Praise, blindness, eyes; Shall I sue Sorrow, sorrow, stay; Time's eldest son - Then sit thee down - When others sing; Toss not my soul; White as lilies was her face; Woeful heart with grief oppressed

[III] "In darkness"
Michael Chance, alto; Paul Beier, lute
rec: May 2011, Oct 2013 & Sept 2014, Nomaglio, S. Bartolomeo
Stradivarius - Str 33914 ( 2015) (78'19")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translations: I
Cover & track-list

A Fancy by Mr. Dowland (P 73); An Almand by Mr. Jo. Dowland; Coranto by Doctor Dowland (P 100); Fancy; Far from triumphing court [4]; Galliard to Lachrimae (P 46) [5]; In darkness let me dwell [4]; In this trembling shadow cast [5]; Lady if you so spite me [4]; Lord Viscount Lisle's Galliard (P 38) [4]; Pavan; Praeludium (P 98); Shall I strive with words to move [5]; Sir Henry Guildford his Almain (attr); Stay, Time, awhile thy flying [5]; Sweet stay awhile [5]; Tell me, true Love [5]; Thou mighty God [5]

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] The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603; [4] Robert Dowland, ed., A Musicall Banquet, 1610; [5] John Dowland, A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612

N.B. (1) The titles of the songs are given in modern spelling in the interest of searching.
(2) The (P) refers to the catalogue of Dowland's lute works by Dianne Poulton. The track-lists don't include them; I have added them as far as I could identify the pieces.

Scores John Dowland

John Dowland is undoubtedly the one of the most fascinating composers of the Elizabethan era. This explains the never-ending stream of recordings of his music. Although his songs and lute music earned much admiration and praise in his time, it is fair to say that for many years he felt rather unhappy, especially because he never succeeded in securing a position at the court of Elizabeth I. That was especially disappointing as he greatly admired her, even probaby felt a platonic love for her. It was only after her death that he finally landed the position of court lutenist under her successor, James I.

It is tempting to see in his many songs of a melancholic or even sad nature an expression of his personal feelings. However, that is a tricky business. It is a good principal to see those songs as independent pieces which have no immediate connection to their composer, unless the opposite can be proven. That goes especially as we in most cases don't know the authors of the texts. Moreover, melancholy was the fashion of the time, and in that light Dowland's selection of texts of that kind should not come as a surprise. Because little is known for sure about the reasons he chose his texts, there is room for more than one interpretation.

The three recordings reviewed here are quite different in programme. Joel Frederiksen offers a cross section of Dowland's oeuvre, going from the first song book to the last collection published in his lifetime, A Pilgrimes Solace, of 1612. Three of his songs were included in A Musicall Banquet, a collection of English, French, Spanish and Italian songs, published by his son Robert in 1610; two of these have been included here. In between Frederiksen plays several lute pieces. As a lutenist Dowland was unsurpassed in his time. Maria Skiba and Frank Pschichholz have confined themselves to the second book. Although several pieces can be performed with various voices, here they are all sung as solos for voice and lute. The exception is Humour say what mak'st thou here, which is a dialogue; Pschichholz sings the bass part. Notable is Pschichholz's view that "all the songs are arranged in pairs and groups and the whole book is a musically and poetically closed song cycle". Michael Chance and Paul Beier focus on the late years of Dowland's career. Here we find the three songs from Robert Dowland's collection as well as songs from A Pilgrimes Solace. This book includes some lesser-known songs, such as Thou mightie God, which closes the disc. The lute pieces which Paul Beier plays are also from the last years of Dowland's life; some of them are different from what he composed before.

Let's turn to the performances. The most unusual disc is the one by Joel Frederiksen. It is not very often that one hears English lute songs being performed by a bass. In the complete recording of Dowland's oeuvre by The Consort of Musicke, several songs were performed by David Thomas. But I am not aware of any recording of a bass entirely devoted to lute songs, let alone to songs by Dowland. It is something one has to get used to. In 2009 I reviewed Frederiksen's disc with Italian monodies from the early 17th century, "O felice morire", with songs by Giulio Caccini and his contemporaries. I was not impressed by his voice, but I liked his interpretation. I still don't find his voice very attractive and for that reason this disc will not land among my favourite Dowland discs. Although I appreciate his approach to these songs, especially the use of various scorings, for instance with a consort of viols, overall I don't really like what I have heard. In my view his strenght is the use of his pretty powerful voice in the interest of text expression. That is the reason I liked his performance of Italian monodies and that this Dowland recital has not made much impression. I feel that he has to restrain himself, which in itself is quite right. It would be totally wrong to perform this repertoire as if it was Italian music. It is true that some songs unmistakably show the influence of the Italian style - Dowland was a great admirer of Luca Marenzio, after all - but that doesn't justify marked dynamic contrasts and a strongly declamatory treatment of the text. In short, I feel that this repertoire deprives him of his strengths. I can also not overlook the slight vibrato on longer notes; it is not really disturbing but definitely out of place here.

In contrast, Maria Skiba completely avoids vibrato. And unlike Frederiksen's voice, I really like her's. When I started listening I remembered my positive assessment of her singing in a recording of cantatas by the German composer Johann Justus Kahle. She is of Polish birth, and I was impressed by her commandment of the German language. She deserves much praise here, because she seems to be equally at home in English. To my ears her English pronunciation is very good. Her approach to these songs seems basically right. She aims at text expression and singles out individual words and phrases, for instance through dynamic differentiation, but she never exaggerates. I really enjoyed her singing and her interpretation at first. However, after a while I started to get bored. The problem is that there is too much uniformity in the way she sings and especially the tempi. The latter are largely the same from start to finish, and often I felt that the tempo was just too slow. But my main objection is the complete lack of ornamentation. Joel Frederiksen shows quite some restraint in this department, and one certainly should not overdo it, but completely omitting any ornamentation is definitely not in line with the performance practice of the time. It is all the more odd as Frank Pschichholz uses some ornamentation in his lute accompaniments. He also sings the second voice in Humour say what mak'st thou here. He does so quite well, but as he is not a professional singer it is probably not surprising that the intonation is a little suspect.

For many years Michael Chance was one of the most prominent representatives of his voice type, the male alto (often called 'countertenor'). He made numerous recordings of renaissance and baroque music and even some modern repertoire. In recent years he doesn't appear that often on disc, but for Stradivarius he made several recordings of English lute songs. In 2013 he recorded songs by John Danyel; I characterised his interpretation as "expressive and moving". I can repeat that in the case of the present disc with songs by Dowland. In fact, of the three discs reviewed here his recording is the only one which moved me. His treatment of the songs and their texts is very subtle and differentiated. There is much more variety here than in the other performances and as a result it is more compelling. In his heydays I never really liked his voice and his singing, but in his recent song recitals, including the present one, I much more appreciate him. Only in Sweet stay awhile the upper notes tend to be a bit shrill. The lute pieces receive excellent performances from Paul Beier.

Whatever are the differences between these discs in regard to the selection of pieces and their performance, they have one thing in common. The three singers all use modern English pronunciation. This is a major disappointment. I find it hard to understand why so few singers are interested in this matter. If one cares about a historical approach to the music, why then ignore the historical aspects of the text? These discs attest to the need of a complete recording of Dowland's vocal works from a strictly historical angle.

In regard to repertoire and performance the Stradivarius disc is the best of these three productions. The Dux disc is certainly worth being investigated, but I advise not to listen to it at a stretch. The recording by Joel Frederiksen is especially interesting for the different scorings.

Johan van Veen ( 2017)

Relevant links:

Paul Beier
Michael Chance
Joel Frederiksen
Frank Pschichholz
Maria Skiba
Ensemble Phoenix


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