Robert JOHNSON (c.1583-1633)
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 (1613) [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. September 2008, St. George’s Church, Sutton, Ontario
NAXOS 8.572178 [60:17]

Fresh from his multi-volume exploration of Dowland’s lute works, Nigel North now turns his attention to one of Dowland’s younger contemporaries, Robert Johnson. Johnson was taken under the care of Sir George Carey, later to become Lord Chamberlain to Elizabeth I. Carey – later Lord Hudson - was also patron of the acting company called The Lord Chamberlaine’s – later The King’s – Men, which numbered Shakespeare among its members. Indeed Johnson was to write music for plays by him, as well as plays by Beaumont and Fletcher, and John Webster. He was also active in court masques, working alongside such as Ben Jonson and Thomas Campion. For these he would write dance music and play the lute in the accompanying band. There are examples of his work in this sphere in this disc; for Ben Jonson and also for George Chapman’s ‘Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn’, from which derives The Noble Man.

Still, his surviving music is small in number. Some 24 pieces are left to us, the earliest, Dowland-influenced, for the 7-course lute. Later he wrote for the nine- or ten-course lute and North duly plays a ten-course instrument after Hans Frei, made by Lars Jönsson – there’s serendipity for you – made in 2005, pitched at A=392.

North plays the music with accustomed eloquence. He responds to its obvious lyric appeal with a wide range of tone colours and technical precision, bringing it strongly to life. The Prince’s Almain, Masque and Coranto is warmly textured, but not pressed too hard, whilst the incipient gravity of the first Pavan is conveyed through its expressive weight. Moving with grace, the Galliard: My Lady Mildmay’s Delight is a most attractive composition. North admits to having ‘improved’ the divisions in the second Pavan, feeling the original to have been ‘not good enough to have been Johnson’s’: scholars, please debate. It’s also the longest work in this selection. He embellishes the repeats in the third Pavan because the surviving copy has no divisions.

North’s great clarity of articulation is perhaps at its most acute in his playing of The Noble Man and Johnson is at his most explicitly lyric, and thus Johnsonian, in The Fairies’ Dance, a marvellous, ballad-like piece, explicitly vocalised and carried off with great assurance. North’s lower strings ring out with rounded and doleful tone in the Fantasie in which colour is varied with great skill. The fourth Pavan – the Pavans are a problematic area of Johnson’s compositions – is not set in an original version but only in a keyboard arrangement by Giles Farnaby. North has used the Farnaby to attempt to re-establish the lute original, and it certainly sounds very plausible in his hands. The Satyre’s Dance is another instance of North’s reconstructive art, as the original lute version has again not survived.

If your interest in lute music extends to a theatrical, Shakespearean or other context, then you will greatly enjoy North’s well recorded and textually and digitally elevated performances. He brings things, as ever, vividly to life.

Jonathan Woolf

You will greatly enjoy North’s well recorded and textually and digitally elevated performances. He brings things, as ever, vividly to life.