Robert JOHNSON (c.1583-1633)
The Prince’s Almain and other Dances for Lute
The Prince’s Almain, Masque and Coranto [4.26]; Pavan No 1 [5.16]; Galliard: My Lady Mildmay’s Delight [1.42]; Pavan No 2 [7.24]; 2 Almains [2.42]; The Noble Man [2.52]; The Witches Dance [1.50]; Pavan No 3 [6.54]; 3 Almains [4.43]; The Fairies’ Dance [2.12]; Fantasie [3.31]; Galliard [1.38]; Lady Strange’s Almain [1.02]; Pavan No 4 (set by Nigel North) [3.47]; The First, Second and Third Dances in the Prince’s Masque [3.49]; 3 Almains [3.16]; The Satyre’s Dance (set by Nigel North) [3.11]
Nigel North (lute)
rec. 16-18 September 2008, St. George’s Church, Sutton, Ontario, Canada
NAXOS 8.572178 [60.17]

This is not the first disc to be devoted to the music of Robert Johnson often described as Shakespeare’s Lutenist. You just need to go back to 1993 for Anthony Rooley and friends who recorded a disc of Johnson’s Theatre Music. It comprises songs and lute solos and is on Virgin classics (VC7 5931 2).

Johnson worked for Shakespeare’s company, ‘The King’s Men’ at The Globe probably from c.1605 when he would have been in his early twenties. Later he worked at Blackfriars and after the great poet’s death composed for Webster, Ben Jonson and others. For them he produced incidental music and songs for masques. It’s very difficult to know which of these pieces Shakespeare actually heard. The Witches Dance might have been for a Macbeth performance but more likely for a post-Shakespeare play; Nigel North, in his very interesting booklet notes, suggests Ben Jonson’s ‘The Masque of Queens’. But for the great man’s last plays, the Romances like ‘The Winter’s Tale’, much music was needed and Robert Johnson would have been much in demand. Johnson was no hack arranger of fill-ins. He could often, especially in his songs and here in the Pavans and the Fantasie, be inspired.

Some readers might care to search out an article I wrote for the British Music Society in a Newsletter, (No 71 September 1996) in which I tried to make a case for Robert Johnson being part of an extraordinary dynasty of musicians going back to another Robert Johnson from Scotland (c.1500-1560). The latter came to London and his sons and grandsons continued the family tradition. All of them were connected with the highest Royal Patronage.

Johnson’s 24 surviving lute works are all here. The include the very fine Fantasie (his only example), which Julian Bream on his 1962 RCA LP ‘The Golden Age of English Lute Music’ attributed to John Johnson, Robert’s father. Its style however may well be more Elizabethan than Jacobean. Other, more serious pieces include the Four Pavans. Nigel North has rather freely reconstructed the Fourth, a very melancholic piece, from the keyboard original. The latter was set by Giles Farnaby and can be found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. North has recently recorded all of Dowland’s Lute Music and superb CDs they are too. It’s quite clear that learning Dowland has helped in an understanding of Johnson and indeed that Johnson must have known Dowland’s Pavans and been inspired by them himself.

The disc contains several short and slightly frivolous dances. Johnson was keen on the Almain and ten of them are recorded here. Again the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book offers us versions of three of them. The first track begins with The Prince’s Almain - the young and ill-fated prince Henry Prince of Wales - probably the composer’s best known work. It’s in a sort of bright D minor. Julian Bream began his above record with this piece. Nigel North gives it a more delicate performance here. There are other dances like the Satyre’s Dance and the Fairies’ Dance, and a piece called The Noble Man. Each of these is from a masque, Ben Jonson’s ‘Oberon’ for example and George Chapman’s ‘Masque of the Middle Temple’, all from the period 1611-14.

Nigel North plays a seven-course lute for the earliest pieces but later Johnson wrote for the nine or ten-course instrument. The one North uses was made in 2005 but based on a Hans Frei original by Lars Jönsson. No matter which instrument he uses, North can be relied upon to give the listener a blissful and lyrical experience capturing the differing moods of piece with character and élan.

Gary Higginson

A blissful and lyrical experience capturing the differing moods of piece with character and élan.