Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Dowland: Complete Lute Music

Nigel North (lute)
rec. St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, 2004-2007
Originally issued and still available separately as 8.557586, 8.557862, 8.570449 & 8.570284
NAXOS 8.504016 [4CDs: 64:39 + 66:03 + 66:22 + 60:18]

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The Naxos John Dowland Complete Lute Music set is the culmination of a recording project by the lutenist Nigel North. The four discs have already appeared individually but are now available, each in its original packaging but grouped together in a card slip case. Each disc is structured as a recital programme and each stands up well as in individual contribution to the composer’s discography. Together, they offer the advantage of a comprehensive survey and also have sufficient diversity and musical interest that on completing one, the listener’s natural inclination is to turn to the slip case to find the next instalment. 

One surprise for me of this total immersion approach was discovering how much up-beat music Dowland wrote. His pavans and other melancholic numbers richly deserve their popularity, but marches, jigs and galliards make up a similar proportion of his work and are equally satisfying, the composer’s deep humanity coming through without any need for melancholic pathos. Nigel North cleverly constructs his programmes around the themes and moods of the music, while always maintaining a recitalist’s sense of diversity. So, for example, volume 2 is entitled ‘Dowland’s Tears’, and includes most of his well-known melancholic numbers, concluding with the famous Semper Dowland Semper Dolens. But the pavans, funerals and adieus are interspersed with a handful of galliard’s, each of which balances the mournful tone without breaking the mood. 

North performs with impressive clarity, the surety and evenness of his tone constant across the four discs. An enviable combination of rigour and suppleness characterises his playing. He arpeggiates with evenness and regularity, never temped to manipulate the chords for melodic gain. His rendition of Semper Dowland Semper Dolens is a case in point, evenly strummed throughout, allowing the music’s simple melodic line to make its point without any extraneous decoration or rubato. On the other hand, his melodies and introductory figures often breathe with a sense of almost vocal lyricism. So, for example, Mrs. Vaux’s Galliard, opens with a very gentle accelerando through the opening few chords, deftly approaching, and then immediately establishing, the tempo of the melody. A lively ornamentation is occasionally employed, as in The King of Denmark’s Galliard, which is spiced with lively, if disciplined, mordent figures. He is not afraid to explore extremes of tempo. His reading of Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliard, for example, is brisk, while Mr. Dowland’s Midnight is slower than you will hear elsewhere. In both cases, the clarity of the tone and the lyricism of the melodic line are more than sufficient to secure the integrity and musicality of the result. 

The performances were given on 8, 9 and 10 course instruments with pitches ranging from A=392hz to 440hz. Even at the lower end of this pitch spectrum, the sound is clear and bright, a testament perhaps to the luthier’s art, and most of the instruments were made in the last 10 years. The recording venue was the church of St John Chrysostom, Newmarket, Ontario, and the generous acoustic makes for a particularly satisfying sound profile. A halo of resonance surrounds the lute but, more importantly, does not interfere with the clarity of the attack or the evenness of the decay. 

Dowland’s lute music has made few appearances on CD in recent years, making this well played, well programmed and well recorded set all the more valuable. The high standard of the recorded sound suggests that modern technology may be of future benefit to lutenists, in that the notoriously soft tone of their instrument makes an ideal subject for sound recording when reproduced with this level of care. The sound of the player’s fingers moving along the neck can often be heard. For those put off by such things, I would stress that it is usually only just above the level of audibility. But for me, the sound only adds to verisimilitude and intimacy of the listening experience. Experienced Dowland collectors are going to want to seek this recording out, although most will have probably already bought the discs individually. Newcomers to the composer’s work could find no better place to start than with Nigel North’s recordings, and they will have the added advantage of being able to listen to over four hours of Dowland’s elegant, courtly strains without any fear of having the experience ruined by Sting wailing away over the top. 

Gavin Dixon

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