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Clear or Cloudy
Benno Schachtner (alto)
Jakob D. Rattinger (viola da gamba)
Axel Wolf (lute)
Andreas Küppers (harpsichord)
rec. 2017, Library of Roggenburg Abbey, Germany
Texts and translations included
ACCENT ACC24333 [59:04]

Benno Schachtner is a German male alto of the younger generation, born in 1984. In 2012 he was the first male alto ever to win the Bach competition in Leipzig. He has participated in several major recordings of works by Bach, for instance René Jacobs' recording of the St John Passion ( review). Recently I reviewed a recording in which he appears as a soloist alongside the recorder player Stefan Temmingh (review). Here he presents himself in a recital of English solo songs from Dowland to Purcell.

For many singers who focus on early music, the English lute song repertoire is a rich source. It flourished during the last decade of the 16th and the first quarter of the 17th century. A key figure in the repertoire and, as a result, in many concert programmes and discs is John Dowland, who published three books of songs between 1597 and 1603. In 1612 his last book of songs came from the press under the title A Pilgrimes Solace. Later in the 17th century other composers also wrote songs, but then mostly with a basso continuo part instead of a lute accompaniment. A considerable number of such songs were originally intended for the theatre. That is also the case with many of Henry Purcell’s songs. A number of them were later published separately by his widow, under the title of Orpheus Britannicus.

If we look at the programme from the angle of repertoire, the choice of songs is a little disappointing. All the pieces are excellent, but there are no surprises: every piece included here is already available in other recordings, including performances by male altos. Considering that a large part of English song repertoire of the 17th century is still waiting to be discovered and recorded (a good example is the large output of Henry Lawes), it is regrettable that we hear only more or less familiar works.

The two main composers are at the outer ends of the chronological line: Dowland and Purcell. The latter’s songs come off best here. Sweeter than roses is given a truly theatrical interpretation, and that is well justified, as it was originally part of the incidental music to Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country. Even some songs which were not written for the theatre, are sometimes quite theatrical in character, such as Fly swift, ye hours, which is given a very good interpretation. One of Purcell’s most popular songs is Music for a while, which opens the programme. This was part or Purcell’s music for the tragedy Oedipus, King of Thebes. Here the performance is rather disappointing. Schachtner does too much with it, for instance by starting a cappella with a long held “music”; and only then does the basso continuo start with the ground bass on which this song is founded. I find that rather artificial and I can’t see any reason for it. The tempo is also a bit slow, and that is a general tendency here.

It is one of the reasons that I am less enthusiastic about the Dowland songs. Schachtner takes too many liberties in his tempi. Come again, sweet love takes here 5:29; the Consort of Musicke, for instance, in its ground-breaking recording of the complete works by Dowland, needs just over 4:30. Schachtner also does too much in regard to text expression. Although some of Dowland’s songs show the influence of Italian monody (for instance In darkness let me dwell), his output is firmly rooted in the stile antico and does not require marked declamation, dynamic accents or strong tempo fluctuations. The latter especially manifests itself in the last lines of Come again. Schachtner’s liberties in these departments contrast rather oddly with his sparing use of ornamentation, or even the complete absence of it, such as in Now, o now I needs must part.

There are some nice instrumental contributions from the accompanists, who all do an excellent job. The Ground by William Croft is one of the very few less familiar items on this disc. The three Hume items are also welcome as only a few of his compositions are really well-known. His pieces for viola da gamba solo have to be counted among the best from his time, and his songs are also well worth being performed.

The disc ends with one of Purcell’s most impressive solo pieces, the Evening Hymn. It receives here a really outstanding performance, and confirms my impression that Schachtner is more at home in baroque repertoire than in music from the renaissance period. His very fine voice can really blossom in this piece, and he uses it intelligently and effectively to bring out the soul’s trust and confidence that is expressed in the text.

As Schachtner is not English one can hardly expect him to care about a historical pronunciation of the texts. Even his English-speaking colleagues don’t, so one cannot blame him for that. As far as I can tell his English is impeccable.

Although I am not entirely satisfied with this disc, I have certainly enjoyed much that is on offer here, thanks to Schachtner’s nice voice as well as the fine contributions of his colleagues. And the music is irresistible, of course. There is certainly not a dull moment. This disc is well worth investigation.

Johan van Veen


Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583):
Music for a while [4:49]
Pausanias, The Betrayer of his Country (Z 585):
Sweeter than roses [4:07]
Tobias HUME (1579?-1645)
Fain would I change that note [1:40]
Sir Humphrey [1:06]
John DOWLAND (1562-1626)
Clear or cloudie sweet as April showring [2:58]
Fly swift ye hours (Z 369) [5:30]
William CROFT (1678-1727)
Ground [3:30]
Mourn, day is with darkness fled [2:30]
Come again, sweet love doth now invite [5:29]
Tobias HUME
I am falling [1:23]
John BLOW (1648/49-1708)
Tell me no more you love [3:17]
Flow my tears [4:49]
Lachrimae pavan [4:55]
Now, o now I needs must part [5:55]
Robert JOHNSON (c1583-1633)
Have you seen but a while lily grow [2:06]
An Evening Hymn (Z 193) [4:50]

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