John Dowland is one of those few composers whose music can conjure
up an entire lost world within only a few bars. This disc makes a fine
introduction to his work, and it centres around the lute playing of Thomas
Dunford, which anchors the whole disc, leading up to the climax of the
. Dowland's music has an air of such blissful
melancholy about it - a delicate yearning that seems almost more intense
than its fulfilment. These characteristics are exemplified in the mild
meandering of the solo lute movements, including the gentle questioning of
the prelude or the wonderfully atmospheric Melancholy Galliard.
seems to be a gentle meditation on the vicissitudes of fate, and
even the King of Denmark's Galliard
is upbeat only in parts,
celebration always restrained by duty and decorum. The title of
Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens
, whose text is kept in Glasgow
University's library, is both a play on the composer's name and a knowing
acknowledgement of how frequently his music is matched with the theme of
mourning. This extraordinary piece contains quotations from many of
Dowland's works, "as if defining himself through music", as the booklet
notes put it.
In all of this, Dunford is helped by exceptionally clear and unfussy
recorded sound, captured in the seemingly ideal acoustic of the studio at
Flagey. It gives the lute enough space to breathe and open up the texture
with just the right levels of clarity.
The singers seem to be an occasional ensemble assembled specifically
for this project by Dunford himself. They take a admirably intelligent
approach to each of the songs, providing variety and discretion in their
performance. Four tracks on the disc are sung in four-part harmony, the
other vocal numbers are duets, but each is approached as a distinct entity
with its own requirements. In Come Again
, for example, they sing the
outer verses as a four-part choir, but each of the four central verses get
the treatment of one solo voice each. This not only provides variety but
also deepens the psychology of the song, charting, as it does, the lover's
journey from enthusiasm to despair.
The four singers are very good indeed, with purity of vocal tone and
clarity of texture. Some of the textual enunciation from Reinoud van
Mechelen and Alain Buet is a little idiosyncratic at times, but that's a
small price to pay when Ruby Hugues and Paul Agnew are so consistently fine.
Agnew is particularly good in the melting tenor line of I saw my lady
, where the blend with Buet's bass and the sound of the lute is
hypnotic in its beauty. Hugues joins Buet to sing Flow, my teares
a duet, and again it works very well, weaving a gentle web of sound that I
was very happy to lose myself in.
Keep listening to the very end of the final track, by the way, and
find a secret, hidden track which is a Dowlandesque take on a much more