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Robert JOHNSON (c.1583-1633)
Away Delights – Lute Solos and Songs from Shakespeare’s England

The gypsies’ dance
As I walked forth
Where the bee sucks
Gallyard (My Lady Mildmay’s Delight)
Woods, rocks and mountains
Come hither you that love
Tell me dearest
Pavan I in C minor
Almayne I
Hark! Hark! The lark
Away delights
Oh, let us howl
Pavan II in F minor
Almayne II
How wretched is the state
Have you seen but a white lily grow?
Care-charming sleep
Pavan III in C minor
Almayne III
Almayne IV
With endless tears
Come heavy sleep
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Matthew Wadsworth (lute)
Mark Levy (bass viol)
Recorded St Mary’s Church, South Creake, Norfolk, October 2003 and April 2004
AVIE AV2053 [64.47]


I thought I’d used up my surfeit of superlatives when discussing Monica Huggett’s Biber but now I see I shall have to dust them down once more. Less prolific and less recorded than his contemporary Dowland, Robert Johnson is nevertheless an outstanding figure in the history of English lute writing. Only about twenty-five solo lute works are extant but a number of songs have survived. He’s notable, of course, as the only composer known to have written for Shakespeare; his Tempest songs are surely his most popularly lasting achievements. But he was appointed early to court circles, becoming lutenist to James I in 1604 and many years later serving Charles I. Versatile and well-connected he was also a theatre composer, writing for Ben Jonson as well as for Shakespeare. In the later days he would have moved amongst the equally versatile circle of Lanier. Johnson’s English style was augmented by the wind of Italian change and also by an admixture of French influence.

We can hear how he cultivated a specifically English gravity and seriousness in his Fantasia or how, in Pavane II, he fuses an espressivo style with changes in metrics to produce an uncommonly powerful and transformatory setting. Though it may sound less obviously virtuosic than Dowland’s comparable solo lute works Johnson makes very considerable demands of the player, ones that are unremitting in their intensity. His songs share comparable virtues; never quite in Dowland’s class as regards melodic distinction they do display a sure understanding of theatrical context and of lyrical curve. His attention to word setting is distinguished. In this respect the songs of his that have seared most on the collective imagination are Where the bee sucks, Full fathom five and Have you seen but a white lily grow? two of which are here. The last named was a perennial favourite amongst singers of the Old School (I last heard it sung, in that style, with supernatural beauty by Heddle Nash in a private recording made in the early 1940s).

The songs are sung here by the ravishing Carolyn Sampson. Her clarity and warmth add immeasurably to the success of the recital, not least in such as Come hither you that love where her vocal colour and rhythmic subtlety are highly developed. Her care with textual nuance is a distinguishing feature as well. In the dramatic setting Oh, let us howl from the blockbuster, Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, we can hear some remarkable musicianship – the evocative bass viol (Mark Levy and as ever when I’ve heard him – excellent), the curdle of Sampson’s voice and the dramatic howl of the lute. I’ve saved Matthew Wadsworth for last. Heroic, evocative, inflected, he’s everything one could wish for as a guide to this Johnsonian sound-world. In the Webster his lute positively screeches and in the Dowland-like Come heavy sleep he accompanies Sampson with telling sensitivity. Throughout he’s technically unimpeachable; he hides that technique like a conjuror.

Enough superlatives, then. There’s a pleasing acoustic in St Mary’s Church, South Creake in Norfolk. All told this is a very distinguished release and its dynamic motor, Wadsworth, not content with playing the lute, has also written the notes, produced the artwork and owns the copyright. A Restoration Man indeed.

Jonathan Woolf

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