It is over forty years since James Bowman came up to New College,
Oxford in 1960. It was at New College that the young counter-tenor
was a Choral Scholar and then a Lay Clerk. Now he has returned
to record a solo recital in the Chapel, his first solo recording
there. This disc of 16th and 17th century
lute songs, with lute player Dorothy Linell, was recorded in
Bowman's voice is remarkable, apparently ageless. One notices
that the lute songs enable him to sing within a relatively confined
compass. His vocal production can seem a little stylised but
Bowman's ability to capture the essence of these songs is beautifully
captured. The recorded balance gives equal weight to both voice
and lute, with the voice just clear enough to enable Bowman's
fine diction to come over. Thankfully we hear little of the
Chapel's acoustic, the feeling is entirely intimate and aptly
The disc is entitled Songs and Sorrowful Sonnets and
this rather personal selection is suffused with a sweet and
elegant melancholy, no 'Fine Knacks for Ladies' here. The songs
of Dowland form the backbone of the recital, but we start with
Tallis and Henry VIII, take in Philip Rosseter, William Ballett,
Thomas Ravenscroft and Orlando Gibbons, finishing with Purcell's
The recital opens with a beautifully poised account of Tallis's
O nata lux, an arrangement of Tallis's five-part choral
original. This is followed by Green grow'th the holly,
a rather low key, slightly mournful performance with a lovely
sense of line. The piece comes from a Tudor collection known
as Henry VIII's book, though it survives as a refrain
with words only for the verse; the music for the verse being
supplied from a folk-tune first published in 1611.What then
is love but mourning by John Dowland's contemporary, Philip
Rosseter, continues the mournful vein but with a lively sense
The lute solo, Hearts Ease, William Ballett's Sweet
was the song the virgin sang and Thomas Ravenscroft's Remember,
O thou man, form a group imbued with sweet melancholy. Ballett's
piece is a Christmas lullaby, which he published in 1600 though
in his article in the CD booklet, Andrew Gant suggests that
Ballett only wrote the lute part. Thomas Ravenscroft's book
of psalms, which he published in 1621, also included works by
Dowland and Tallis.
When rising from the bed of death uses a psalm tune written
by Tallis for Archbishop Parker's psalter. The psalm tune was
used by Vaughan Williams in his 'Tallis Fantasia'. Tallis's
psalm tune was applied to a variety of words and here, Bowman
uses a version with words by the 18th century writer
Joseph Addison. Whatever the words, the song is rendered here
with haunting beauty.
There’s a further lute solo, this time Tarleton's Resurrection
by John Dowland.
One of Orlando Gibbons’ most elegant madrigals, The Silver
Swan, receives a finely limpid performance with, as ever,
clear and sensitive words. Dowland's Me, me and none but
me is the first of the Dowland songs on the disc, rhythmically
interesting but still not cheerful.
Then comes another lute solo, another Dowland song, this time
Fortune My Foe.
Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, drop slow tears represents one
of his 'Hymns and Songs of the Church' which, like the Tallis,
is sung to a 17th century text by Phineas Fletcher.
The marriage of words and music is very fine and Bowman's diction,
combined with the way he colours the words, makes the song seem
quite a highlight. Until, that is, we hear the next Dowland
song, Dear, if you change, which has moments of aching
beauty. The final Dowland song in this group is I saw my
A final lute solo, Dowland's Melancholy Galliard, is
finely melancholic and beautifully played
The concluding pair of Dowland songs consists of Can she
excuse my wrongs? and Flow not so fast, ye fountains.
Can she excuse my wrongs? shows Dowland in rhythmically
interesting mode, the piece nicely pointed by Bowman and Linnell
whilst preserving the low-key atmosphere.
The final track in a truly memorable recital is Purcell's Evening
Hymn. Andrew Gant in his article speculates that the young
Purcell may have come to know Ravenscroft's lute songs as a
boy when he heard them performed by his Uncle in the company
of Samuel Pepys, a rather evocative image. Bowman gives an intimate
account of the piece, casting a lovely poised autumnal glow
over the whole recital.
Dorothy Linnell accompanies beautifully with great sensitivity.
The CD booklet includes an article by Andrew Gant but no texts;
though given Bowman's fine diction you hardly need the words.
The pervading feeling of sorrowful melancholy and the slight
constraints detectable in Bowman's voice will mean that this
recital will not appeal to everyone. I have to declare an interest
here, as the recording engineer of the disc is a friend of mine.
Bowman seems to distil a lifetime's artistry and his voice defies
time, so that the recital will surely be of interest to all
lovers of the voice.
A note from Martin Walker
I would like to query the following statement by Robert Hugill
in his review: "Then comes another lute solo, another Dowland
song, this time Fortune My Foe." Neither the words of this
putative song nor the tune are by Dowland - the air was published
as a set of variations in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, attributed
to Byrd, but it is clearly older. There is no vocal setting
to my knowledge; one is at liberty to doubt that the existent
anonymous lyric commencing "Fortune my foe, why dost thou
frown on me" was originally associated with the air. From
A History of Irish Music by William H. Grattan Flood we learn
that "Fortune my Foe is an exquisite sixteenth-century
Irish melody, alluded to by Shakespeare, the music of which
is to be found in William Ballet's Lute Book, in 1593; also,
in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and in William Forster's Virginal
Book, dated January 31st, 1624, now the property of King Edward
VII. As far back as 1565-6 it was licensed as a ballad, and
is mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act II., Scene 3).
Chappell says that Fortune my Foe was known as the Hanging Tune,
"from the metrical lamentations of extraordinary criminals
being always chanted to it."" (The book I am quoting
from is in the public domain and freely available online.)
Obviously I would not bother about this were it not that the
melody in question is ineffably beautiful - and has haunted
me for decades. The most unforgettable recording of it I have
heardwas on the Turnabout LP of Dowland Songs & Dances played
by Christiane Jacottet, Joel Cohen etc - a record with the late
lamented Hugues Cuénod that urgently needs to be remastered
Posted by Martin Walker on March 20, 2012,