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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.