Dowland Lachrimae Challenge CC72938

John Dowland (1563-1626)
Jadran Duncumb (lute)
Accadamia Strumentale Italiana/Alberto Rasi
rec. 2023, Nazareth Church, Verona, Italy
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Challenge Classics CC72938 [66]

Dedicated to Anne of Denmark, Queen to James I of England, Dowland’s Lachrimae might prosaically be seen as yet another attempt to secure a court post in his native land. It seems more than a little ironic that a musician whose work has come to seem the epitome of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age should have been so unsuccessful in securing a living but one only needs to think of the financial woes of Mozart to realise that fame doesn’t always lead to fortune.

The work in question, like Monteverdi’s Vespers or Bach’s B minor Mass (both incidentally speculative job applications of a sort) is a kind of summation of the composer’s work to that point. As Dowland’s only published consort music, it gives us a glimpse of his range as a composer beyond songs and shorter pieces for lute. And what an enticing glimpse it is! Most of the movements are in a sense arrangements and polyphonic treatments of earlier work and some of his most celebrated ‘hits’ – Flow My Tears, Semper Dowland Semper Dolens –are represented.

If there were prizes for liner notes, then Renato Calza’s for this release would without a shadow of doubt win one. It is a fantastically informative and well written essay from which I will steal shamelessly for this review! Of course, any misunderstandings are my own.

The Lachrimae or Seven Tears are explorations of melancholy, a veritable obsession of the age. Each of the Lachrimae deals with a different type of tears – old, sighing, sad, those of a lover and so on. Calza notes that some scholars have speculated on a kind of narrative arc whereby the composer arrives finally at the consolation of ‘true tears’. Others have conjectured a religious narrative. Either way, the basic conceit is that the melancholy pleasure of music would (according to Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy) provide “a happy cure” to the melancholic woes of life. Each Tear takes the form of a pavane or pauan as it is called in the published edition, a stately dance, though as Calza points out Dowland’s pavanes were no longer written for dancing hence their more elaborate form. All seven Tears are based on the same lute solo that had already previously been reworked as the song Flow My Tears. In this sense, the cycle of Tears might be seen as a kind of set of variations.

This surfeit of melancholy is offset by livelier galliards and more sturdy almans or allemandes (described amusingly by Thomas Morley as “fitlie representing the nature of the people, whose name it carrieth”). Duncumb and Rasi, as others have done before them, elect to mix up the Lachrimae with the lighter dances, presumably in the interests of a more varied programme. Others, notably Christopher Wilson with Fretwork have chosen to present the Lachrimae consecutively followed by the dances which in my view runs the risk of too much of a good thing. To add to the variety, this new recording offers several of these dances as lute solos.

The first thing that struck me about this new release was how Italianate it is. We aren’t very far from the sound world of Monteverdi with the sensual aspect of melancholy very much to the fore. There was always a sexy aspect to this much fashionable gloom prefiguring Freud by quite a few centuries. This is underpinned by a warm, ripe recorded sound.

In the livelier dances, this mood turns to flirtatiousness. Try Sir John Souch His Galliard. Next to these Italian flirts, both Fretwork with Wilson sound a little too possessed of an English stiff upper lip. Even Les Voix Humaines with Nigel North sound a little too English by comparison. It will be argued that this music is meant to sound English. But I, for one, was seduced by Rasi and Co’s seductive ways.

Duncumb, who is described as a Norwegian/English/Croatian lutenist (which is quite the combination!), is in superb form playing with a real sense of fantasy, inquisitiveness and poetry. I particularly savoured his rubato which allowed a little give to the dance rhythms, which can end up sounding a little starchy and corset bound.

There is of course more to this music than just sensual delights and the emotionality of Rasi’s wonderful ensemble penetrates deep into the existential core of Downland’s sorrows. The final Lachrimae, ‘True Tears’, is given a thoughtful, noble character with the feeling of sorrows recollected from the other side rather than overwhelmingly present.

Listeners are spoilt for choice in this music, but what makes this new recording stand out, apart from the striking excellence of the recorded sound, is the nimble playfulness of Duncumb’s lute playing and the warm Italian sun which Rasi and friends shine upon Dowland’s inspiration.

David McDade

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