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John DOWLAND (1562-1626)
Walsingham [0:38]
Can she excuse my wrongs? [2:36]
" Ryght Honorable: As I Have Bin Most Bounde Unto Your Honor..." [0:40]
Flow My Tears [4:42]
Robert JOHNSON (c. 1583 - c. 1633)
Have You Seen The Bright Lily Grow [2:35]
" ...Then In Time Passing One Mr. Johnson Died..." [0:32]
The Most High And Mighty Christianus The Forth, King Of Denmark, His Galliard [3:01]
The Lowest Trees Have Tops [2:16]
" ...And Accordinge As I Desired Ther Cam A Letter..." [0:55]
Fine Knacks For Ladies [1:50]
" ...From Thence I Went To The Landgrave Of Hessen..." [0:24]
Fantasy [2:42]
Come Heavy Sleep [3:45]
Forlorn Hope Fancy [3:07]
" ...And From Thence I Had Great Desire To See Italy..." [0:29]
Come Again [2:56]
Wilt Thou Unkind Thus Reave Me [2:40]
" ...After My Departure I Caled To Mynde Our Conference..." [0:29]
Weep You No More, Sad Fountains [2:38]
My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home [1:34]
Clear Or Cloudy [2:47]
" ...Men Say That The Kinge Of Spain Is Making Gret Preparation..." [1:01]
In Darkness Let Me Dwell [4:07]
Sting (tenor)
Edin Karamazov (lute)
rec. Date not specified, Steerpike Studios, Il Palagio, Italy.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 170 3139 [48.25]

I have an open mind. I also have broad musical tastes. While I generally review early and baroque music here on MusicWeb, I am also a big fan of minimalism, Mahler, Charles Ives and much more. But beyond classical music, I like a great deal of rock, jazz, ambient music and many other styles. About half my music library is classical, with the remainder covering everything from punk to the Grateful Dead, from Bill Evans to Brian Eno.
So when I heard that Sting, whose music I very much liked back in the early 1980s, was recording an album of music by John Dowland - one of my favorite composers of lute music and songs - I was intrigued. Unlike many "hard-core" classical music fans, I was willing to have an open mind and hear what this aging popular musician had done.
But it starts out pretty bad ... After a brief lute piece (Walsingham), Sting's first song is Can She Excuse My Wrongs, a very nice piece that is relatively well known. The miking is far too close, and you can hear every breath - or gasp - that he takes. (Is this a reference to the classic song by The Police, Sting's former group, Every Breath I Take?) In the first verse, Sting's voice is so-so, but you can tell that he's not in his element. Then, after this verse, the lutenist overdoes it, trying to play as many fast riffs as possible.
Then comes the second verse, with Sting's voice recorded and processed several times, in various locations of the soundspace, with some harmonies in the background. It sounds like a bad Rick Wakeman album from the 1970s.
As an interlude, Sting reads from a letter that Dowland wrote. This adds very little to the disc itself, and there are seven of these interludes.
Next is Flow My Tears, based on the melody from Dowland’s “hit” instrumental, Lachrimae. Stings sounds like a mediocre singer in a shower. His voice is terrible, his tone is slightly off, and it makes me want to howl at the moon. He basically massacres this song - though you don't hear him gasping any more - and his braying is a sorry sound indeed.
But not all is bad. Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow, by Robert Johnson - the only song on the disc not by Dowland - is a song that Sting's voice espouses much better, though he loses points again with the longer notes; when holding them, he turns them into moans. To his credit though, he doesn't use vibrato, which many singers do with such music.
There are a handful of solo lute pieces on this disc as well. Yet there is trickery afoot there; in The Most High And Mighty Christianus The Fourth, King Of Denmark, His Galliard, there are clearly two lutes playing; hence, there are overdubs on the album, aside from simply adding Sting's voice in multiple processed versions.
There's not much else to say; the rest of the disc is pretty much like this. The great Come, Heavy Sleep is similar in performance to Flow My Tears; Sting simply does not know how to hold notes correctly to make this music come alive. In Darkness Let Me Dwell shows the weakness of his voice as he sings with a hoarse sound at times, and at others, simply doesn't sing more than the words. There is no appropriate emotion in his renditions of these songs, no technical qualities, truly nothing to recommend this disc. I just listened to a few of Paul Agnew's recordings of Dowland's songs to compare; he, like Sting, is a tenor, but he sings with such mastery and grace that Sting, next to Agnew, sounds no better than a novice belting out a few songs in a bar for kicks; this disc sounds like bad karaoke.
But then I did a test. I asked my wife, who is not a classical music fan, to listen to the disc; I said nothing about it. She found the music familiar - even though she’s not a fan. She does hear me listen to Dowland from time to time, and recognized it. Her reaction was totally different from mine. She found the disc “peaceful”, mostly because she likes Sting’s voice.
Now, I have to admit that it is entirely possible that Sting's performance is closer to actual Elizabethan performance than we in the 21st century can imagine. Shakespeare scholars, for example, have shown that no Shakespeare play was met with the same awe and respect that we modern theatre-goers show; it is very possible that this performance accurately reflects the majority of Elizabethan minstrels. Well, all but the part with the processed voices.
This is a huge best-seller. Thanks to the marketing juggernaut of Deutsche Grammophon, this disc has been seen and heard everywhere though perhaps not so much on classical music radio stations. Who is buying this? Aging baby-boomers who grew up with Roxanne, and who are now getting their first taste of classical music? Or simply those people who only buy a few CDs every year and fall for the latest crossover acts, since they make them feel more sophisticated? I doubt that many people familiar with Dowland's work will snap up this disc, and I certainly don't recommend that they do.
Kirk McElhearn



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