John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Lachrimae or Seaven Teares Figured in Seven Passionate Pavans
Hespèrion XX/Savall
rec. St. Mary's Church (St. Martin Sarroca), Catalonia, Spain May 1987
Alia Vox are busy re-mastering for multi-channel SACD the entire back catalogue of their recordings with Jordi Savall and his various instrumental and vocal groups. This Dowland disc is Volume 17 of the series. The re-mastering and presentation are exemplary, giving the listener every opportunity to come to terms with this remote masterpiece by, as the original frontispiece puts it “John Dowland Bacheler of Musicke, and Lutenist to the most Royall and Magnificent, Christian the fourth, King of Denmark ... “ It goes on for several more lines of appellation for his royal patron. There are twenty one parts to this book of lachrimae and courtly dances.
The sequence is performed with meticulous attention to Dowland's instructions by a consort of five viols and a lute, all members of Savall's Hespèrion XX group. Most of this music is slow and solemn, a characteristic not so much of the period as of Dowland himself. The years following the death of Elizabeth I were indeed those of the '17th century melancholy'. It went on to influence poets, musicians and philosophers throughout the Jacobean period. The common people saw this as a cult of the educated and aristocratic classes and it was much lampooned in contemporary satires. For us, with the benefit of over four centuries perspective, this slow and gentle music is quite a relief from the brief, aggressive and lively cultural artefacts that now absorb us. The last thing one can imagine is a John Dowland tweet. He needs space gradually to develop and repeat his gloomy ideas. A modern listener may well find this music rather sad and hypnotic. The nearest music of this era is that of the late Sir John Tavener who also demands temporal space.
As implied by the title, there are seven 'tears'. Each tear is about five minutes long and separated from the next by one or more galiard, pavan, almand or funerall. For continuous listening the dances, described as passionate but all gravely beautiful and never indecorous, do much to sugar the pill of all that crying. Perhaps the way to get inside this distant music is to turn down the lights and play a lot of it at a suitably moderate volume.
There are plenty of alternative recordings but, given its excellent sound and its very reasonable price, this is irresistible. If you need another reason then heed Dowland's own words: “though the title doth promise teares unfit guests in these ioyfull times, yet no doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weepes, neither are teares shed always in sorrow, but some time in ioy and gladness.”
Dave Billinge  

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