With Endless Teares
Songs by Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633), Nicholas LANIER (1588-1666), Henry LAWES (1596-1662), Jacques GAUTIER (late C16-before 1660), Pelham HUMFREY (1647-1674) & Henry PURCELL (1658-1695)
Full track listing at end of review
Johannette Zomer (soprano); Fred Jacobs (lute and theorbo)
rec. Doopsgezinde Kerk, Deventer, Netherlands, December 2008. DDD/DSD Stereo/Surround 5.0

This is the fourth of a series of recordings of 17th-century monody: Splendore di Roma, music by Kapsberger, Mazzocchi, Michi and Rossi (CCSSA19903); Nuove Musiche (Caccini and Piccini, CCSSA21305) and L’Esprit Galant (CCSSA24307). We don’t seem to have reviewed these for MusicWeb International, but Splendore di Roma and L’Esprit Galant received warm welcomes elsewhere. Fred Jacobs describes the enterprise in the notes as an exploration of ‘a century of extraordinary song writing.’

My own most recent encounters with Johannette Zomer were in several minor roles on the DVD of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante (Opus Arte OA1020D: ‘The quality of [her] contribution in such small roles augurs well for the quality of what is to come’ – see review) and as Syrinx in Gaillard’s Pan and Syrinx (Brilliant 93766: ‘Inevitably, Johanette Zomer’s Syrinx outshines the others, since she has the best music and she is capable of sounding both powerful and gentle, scornful and delicate, as appropriate.’ – see review). Robert Hugill was equally impressed, with very minor reservations, by her Handel recital (CCSSA29209 – see review and please note corrected catalogue number).

The music of Robert Johnson is neither as well known nor quite as accomplished as that of Dowland, but it is well worth hearing, especially in such fine performances. As the title of the CD makes clear, his music, like Dowland’s is largely in the then fashionable melancholic vein. It’s an assumed melancholy, however, an adopted persona, and the result should not be thought of as depressing, especially when the performances here are interspersed with more cheerful songs, such as Come hither, you that love (track 4), and four instrumental almains.

The programme is cleverly designed to lead us by stages, like links in a chain, from Johnson, via Henry Lawes and Pelham Humfrey to Purcell. Henry Lawes and his younger brother William were the luminaries of the mid-17th-century and the four songs by Henry are appropriately placed at the heart of the programme on tracks 13-16. Poor old William, who was killed at the battle of Chester, is not even mentioned in the notes and there is nothing by him on the disc. Though the disc is reasonably well filled, there would have been room for another fourteen minutes including something by William.

The penultimate link in the chain comes with four items from Pelham Humfrey, Purcell’s teacher at Westminster and the Chapel Royal. Humfrey’s music deserves to be better known; he is absent from current editions of both major Guides and he is best known in arrangements by Benjamin Britten. There is not a single recording devoted to him alone, but a deleted Harmonia Mundi CD of his verse anthems directed by Nicholas McGegan (HMU90 7053) is well worth seeking out. Zomer and Jacobs make a good case for the pieces on tracks 22 to 25.

The four items by Purcell which conclude the programme, tracks 26-29, are rightly described by Fred Jacobs in the notes as crowning the whole achievement – not just this CD but its predecessors. Zomer and Jacobs rise to the occasion with performances as good as any that I have heard, even of Music for a while (tr.28), of which, goodness knows, there is hardly a dearth of competition. They take a little longer than James Bowman and the King’s Consort on Hyperion (Mr Henry Purcell’s Most Admirable Composures, CDH55303) but without any sense of dragging the music out. The Purcell items on the new disc shine so brightly that you may well wish to explore further, in which case I can think of no better recommendation than the Bowman – it comes with the added advantage of being on Hyperion’s inexpensive Helios label. I can’t think why I didn’t make it Bargain of the Month when I reviewed it – here.

Johannette Zomer’s singing throughout is every bit as good as I expected from my previous encounters, and she is well supported. Just occasionally her diction is less than ideal, with odd syllables swallowed and consonants which don’t receive their full weight. Her English is idiomatic, but with occasional glitches. I sometimes wondered if this resulted from an attempt to recover 17th-century pronunciation – a futile endeavour, since we cannot know exactly how Elizabethan and Stuart English sounded, and one which mercifully seems less prevalent than it once was on record. I think the problem arises rather from difficulties with occasional words; I had a Dutch friend at school who had lived in England nearly all his life and whose pronunciation was perfect, except that he could never say the word ‘country’ – the ‘cou’ always came out like the word ‘cow’. Otherwise there is little reason to prefer Anglophone singers in this repertoire; Zomer negotiates her way through what I regard as Emma Kirkby territory with aplomb.

The notes are informative and readable and, since Fred Jacobs’ English is the original, idiomatic. Inigo Jones has somehow metamorphosed in all three languages in the booklet into ‘Indigo Jones’ – a hybrid being with Indiana Jones, perhaps, or an especially colourful personality?

As it happens, another recording of Johnson’s music has just appeared, on Naxos 8.572178, this time of his lute music alone, played by Nigel North and available only as a download from classicsonline or to stream from the Naxos Music Library here. (The link will take you to the log-in page first). There can be no better advocate than Nigel North, whose Dowland recordings for Naxos have won many plaudits, my own small contribution among them. Please refer to the review of the complete 4-CD set, 8.504016, here, with links to the reviews of individual volumes. North’s playing is every bit as fine here as on those Dowland recordings, though I was surprised to hear a degree of extraneous finger noise, which I don’t recall from the earlier programmes. The two recordings are complementary – there is no overlap. With the download costing just £4.99, it won’t break the bank to buy both.

The SACD layer of the Channel Classics disc is superb and the CD layer is also very good, but the Naxos, though only available as a 320 kbps mp3 download, is not far behind.

The new Channel Classics recording is another enterprising release from an enterprising label and may be warmly welcomed. Nigel North’s Naxos download would be a useful adjunct. Both should have more than minority appeal and deserve to sell well, though, when I see such an outstanding recording as Hyperion’s Monteverdi Vespers and their whole English Orpheus series among their ‘please buy me’ discounts for lack of sales, I despair to see excellence go unrewarded.

Brian Wilson

Full track listing:
Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633)
Have you seen but the bright lily grow [1:46]
Woods, rocks and mountains [3:41]
With endless tears [1:55]
Come hither you that love [1:40]
Come, heavy sleep [2:14]
Almain [1:08]
The Prince’s Almain [1:02]
Nicholas LANIER (1588-1666)
Mark how the blushful morn [1:36]
I wish no more [1:10]
No more shall meads be deck’d with flowers [3:00]
Almain [1:09]
Almain [2:14]
Henry LAWES (1596-1662)
Amarillis by a spring [1:46]
Amintor’s Welladay [2:05]
Sleep soft, you cold clay cinders [1:54]
Chloris dead, lamented by Amintor [2:09]
Jacques GAUTIER (late C16-before 1660)
Courante [1:20]
Ariadne’s Lament [9:49]
Courante [1:35]
Pelham HUMFREY (1647-1674)
Cupid once, when weary grown [1:59]
Oh! That I had but a fine man [1:11]
O Love, if e’er thou’lt ease a heart [3:34]
How severe is forgetful old age [1:15]
Henry PURCELL (1658-1695)
If grief has any pow’r [1:54]
When first Amintas sued for a kiss [1:38]
Music for a while [3:56]
Farewell, all joys! [1:56]