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Concert reviews

"I saw my Lady weep: Dowland and Purcell"

Reinoud Van Mechelen tenor; Thomas Dunford, archlute
concert: Dec 7, 2011, Woerden, Lutheran Church

John DOWLAND (1563-1626): A Dream, pavan; A fancy; Can she excuse my wrongs; Come again; Flow my tears; Go crystal tears; His golden locks; I saw my Lady weep; If my complaints; Lachrimae Pavan; Now, o now, I needs must part; Preludium; Sorrow, stay; The Frog Galliard; The King of Denmark, his Galliard; Weep you no more sad fountains; Wilt thou unkind thus reave me; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): An Evening Hymn (Z 193); Not all my torments can your pity move (Z 400); What a sad fate is mine (Z 428b); When her languishing eyes (Z 432); When my Acmelia smiles (Z 434)

Recently I reviewed a disc by the soprano Emma Kirkby and the lutenist Jakob Lindberg which brought together songs and lute music by John Dowland and Henry Purcell. As a matter of coincidence the Belgian tenor and the American-French lutenist Thomas Dunford presented the same two composers in one concert which took place in Woerden, a small town west of Utrecht. There is every reason to perform these two composers in one concert, as I explained in my CD review. In both cases the programmes contained a mixture of familiar and less familiar pieces. The oeuvre of Henry Purcell is much larger than John Dowland's. Therefore it is much easier to find some lesser-known stuff in the former's output than in the latter's. Van Mechelen and Dunford had managed to chose some pieces which are not that well-known, though.

In his introduction Van Mechelen stated that Dowland's music moves at the brink of renaissance and baroque. That in itself is not untrue but those songs which show the influence of the modern Italian style most clearly were not represented in the programme. The songs which were performed were strongly rooted in the style of the late renaissance. Purcell's songs are much more dramatic, not only the best-known songs most of which are part of his theatre music, but also many independent songs. Not all my torments is even written in the form of a recitative.

The dramatic character of Purcell's songs came off well, and Reinoud Van Mechelen managed to differentiate between the various songs and within individual items. That was also the case in the largest part of the programme which was devoted to Dowland. Although most songs are of a sorrowful nature they certainly contain some lighter elements. Reinoud Van Mechelen has a nice and agile voice which is very well suited to this kind of repertoire. Thomas Dunford is a fine lutenist who contributed some delightful lute solos. Both artists showed a perfect partnership in the songs. It was a good gesture to perform the vocal and instrumental versions of two pieces: Lachrimae Pavan and Flow my tears, and The Frog Galliard and Now, o now, I needs must part.

So far so good. There were two major flaws, though. Firstly, in Dowland there was an almost complete absence of ornamentation. In a strophic song like Now, o now, I needs must part no ornaments were sung, whereas the piece really begs for them. Even the refrain was repeated unaltered every time. The addition of ornaments was a natural process in the renaissance and baroque eras, and I find it inexplicable that Reinoud Van Mechelen completely ignored this.
But far worse was his treatment of the text. If a singer devotes a whole programme to English songs one may expect that the pronunciation is perfect, or at least as good as can be required from a singer whose native language is not English. The fact that Van Mechelen's Flemish roots were recognizable wasn't the issue here, but his mutilation of so many vowels was. Many words were wrongly pronounced, like "lively", "sun", "love", "must", "farewell", "just", "above". And if a singer uses the British English pronunciation, it is rather odd to hear him sing some words in American English, like "granting" and "advanced". And how on earth is it possible that a singer doesn't know that the "p" in "psalms" is not pronounced?
The diction was anything but perfect as well. In particular the "th" caused many problems: in words like "hath", "doth", "Mirth" or "worth" we only heard a "t" or almost nothing at all. In various lines the tempo was apparently too fast to allow a good diction.

It is a shame that two artists who have so much to offer undermine their performances by things which can only be explained from a lack of preparation.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

Concert reviews