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Brilliant Classics

Awake Sweet Love - English Lute Songs by Dowland and Purcell
John DOWLAND (1564-1626)

First Book of Songs (1597) Complete
Rufus Muller (tenor); Christopher Wilson (lute)
Henry PURCELL (1658-1695)

Fifteen Songs: Crown the Altar, If music be the food of love and By Beauteous Softness from the Birthday Ode to Queen Mary (1689); Strike the Viol from Come ye sons of Art (1694); In the Black Dismal Dungeon of Despair and Evening Hymn words by Dr. William Fuller; Music for a while from Oedipus ; Since from my dear Astrea’s Sight’ from Diocletian; Thrice Happy’ and ‘One Charming Night’ from ‘The Fairy Queen’ (1692); Here the deities approve from ‘Welcome to all pleasures’(1683); Tis Nature’s Voice from ‘Ode on St.Cecilia’s day’(1692); O Solitude words by Katherine Philips; ‘Sweeter than Roses’ from ‘Pausanius’. Incassum, Lesbia’ from Elegy on Queen Mary’s death; (1695)
Michael Chance (counter-tenor); Nigel North (archlute/theorbo), Richard Boothby (viola da gamba); Maggie Cole (harpsichord)
Recorded at Toddington Church, Gloucestershire, 1993
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92137 [74.32+55.57]

The first thing to say is that only Dowland wrote lute songs, so the title of this CD is somewhat misleading. Purcell scored his songs for keyboard with possible continuo as performed here with archlute and theorbo or with gamba. This an important point, as Dowland’s so-called ‘First book of songs’ can be performed in several differing ways, as I shall explain; Purcell’s songs are therefore more conventional being for solo voice with accompaniment.

Rufus Muller’s recording dates from 1993 when it appeared on ASV. It was well reviewed at the time, deservedly so, but there are some reservations which need airing.

Dowland’s First Book consists of twenty-one beautiful and often well-known songs more than half of which are slow. If you are looking for a recording of them, and I think that a serious collector should have book 1, then do you want a version performed by just one singer throughout? If not, then you would have to turn to the recording in the complete Dowland series by Anthony Rooley’s ‘Consort of Musick’. Rooley’s set was recorded in 1976. There he adopts a wide and contrasting range of approaches which give variety if not always consistency. Have no fear, when I last enquired Rooley’s Book 1 was available separately on Decca’s L’Oiseau Lyre (421 653-2).

‘Come Again, sweet love doth now invite’ is a good example of Rufus Muller’s approach. He adopts a brisk tempo and has a beautiful and ideal voice for this repertoire. He is generally quite expressive and not for a moment dull in all six verses (although he could have made more of some of the text). Anthony Rooley has a lute accompanying with the otherwise weak bass enhanced by a bass viol. Rooley uses the more melancholic but also more sensitive Martyn Hill. If the texture of tenor with lute and gamba palls slightly then Rooley follows it in ’His golden locks’ with the unique voice of David Thomas. Thomas’s performance is surely too slow. Rooley precedes the song with ‘Would my conceit’ performed in a wonderfully dark version as a four-part madrigal with Emma Kirkby on the top line.

Another singer in competition with Rufus Muller is Paul Agnew on Metronome (Met CD 1010). Interestingly he is, like Muller, accompanied by Chris Wilson. He has a wonderful way with text; really feeling every word of it. The lute also is recorded more closely … which I prefer. This disc also includes some favourite songs from Book 2 meaning that there is not enough room for all of Book 1. This is just wonderful singing and full of what appears to be spontaneous ornamentation. Rufus Muller rarely ornaments which makes some of the songs appear too chaste and rather Protestant, if I might put it like that.

Other performers of interest who recorded some of the Book 1 songs with considerable success are Emma Kirkby with Anthony Rooley on Virgin (0777 7595214) a disc called ‘The English Orpheus’ and the counter-tenor Steven Rickards with Dorothy Linell on Naxos ( 8.553382). With Muller however you get Book 1 complete. It is interesting to hear how one man comes to terms with the entire collection.

The Purcell songs date from seventy or eighty years later. I wonder if he knew of Dowland? It must be remembered that Purcell rarely wrote separate songs (‘O Solitude’ is an uncommon exception). Most of what has survived was originally used in incidental music or in masque and opera like ‘The Fairy Queen’. Although I can’t be one hundred per cent enthusiastic about the Dowland disc I am much more positive about the Purcell. This can be recommended if, that is, you are happy with a counter-tenor. Michael Chance is a very fine artist and has a superb voice capable of flexibility and colour. A comparable disc by another counter-tenor would be ‘Music for a while’ (Hyperion CDA66070), a fine recital by Paul Esswood recorded in 1981, likewise using harpsichord and gamba. Esswood was very highly valued at the time and was, earlier in his career a member of David Munrow’s Early Music Consort. The Esswood disc however, at forty-five minutes, leaves the listener a little short-changed. Secondly, to my ears, the sound made by Esswood seems to have dated and falls too easily into a vibrato which is too operatic. A good comparison is in the famous second setting of ‘If music be the food of love’. Esswood is quite steady with some rubato in the tempo but little dynamic contrast and little sense of communicating the words with passion. Michael Chance, on the other hand, retains the pulse throughout but adds ornamentation where appropriate and more clearly expresses the text. In ‘so fierce so fierce’ he is aided and abetted by some finely articulated continuo playing which is neither dull nor running on autopilot. Chance is even better in the recitative items. For example in ‘Tis Nature’s Voice’ almost every word is miraculously painted by Purcell; Chance enables every nuance to be savoured. The same comments could also apply to the extraordinary ‘In the black dismal dungeon of despair’ with words by the William Fuller, Bishop of Lincoln. Another setting of Fuller is the final item ‘An Evening Hymn’ which is one of many fine settings by Purcell to a ground bass. ‘Music for a while’ is a particularly famous example of this type of song.

This double CD comes with a twenty-page booklet containing all texts explaining their antecedents and an essay on each composer by Peter Holman.

So to sum up: This budget price set is a very good place to start a collection of early English songs. Both composers are connected by the importance they placed on the text and on expressing it. Most listeners would not be disappointed by these two performers nor by the fine songs selected.

Gary Higginson


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