John Dowland — Sorrow stay

Rosemary Hodgson lute, Justin Burwood, tenor
Classical, Early Music
ABC Classics, 476 4998
Reviewed by , March 1st, 2014

Every so often, a CD comes along that gets absolutely everything right.  Just such a CD is Rosemary Hodgson and Justin Burwood’s recital of lute songs and solos by John Dowland, a recording that meets surprisingly limited competition in the discography notwithstanding the crucial role Dowland plays in the history of late Renaissance s

This recording does canvass some well-worn territory both in the area of song and in the area of the lute solo, including Go crystal tears and Flow my tears in the former category and Lachrimæ in the latter, but several lesser-known miracles of Dowland’s lyric impulse, including All ye whom love or fortune hath betrayed and Come ye heavy states of night, form part of a well considered, eminently tasteful and coherent programme that explores the melancholy fashionable in the early 17th century.  At an hour’s length, this really has been conceived as a recital and, notwithstanding the pervading mood of contained distress, is best listened to from end to end.

Rosemary Hodgson, lutenist

Rosemary Hodgson, lutenist

Justin Burwood’s is practically the ideal voice for this repertoire, light to the point of transparency and with an intelligence paired to it that is evidently deeply in tune with the text.  Burwood’s readings never degenerate into preciousness; he takes the poetry intensely seriously, his diction perfect, his control of nuance enlivening the text with flickers of controlled emotion.  Aware of the transitional nature of this music — already pregnant with Baroque gesture but expressing itself through the control of late Renaissance ‘classicism’ — Burwood never exerts more pressure on the text or music than it can afford to bear.

In Rosemary Hodgson, Burwood and Dowland’s music have found the ideal companion.  Hers is limpid, crystalline playing, attentive at every moment to the polyphonic structure of the lute part in the songs and to the lyric impulse in the solo music.  Hodgson reminds us that the lute part is no mere ‘accompaniment’ to the vocal part, but a full partner in the musical dialogue, making its own arguments and speaking with its own voice.  Her lute sings with Burwood.  Her solo playing in the Lachrimæ, agonisingly slow and pensive, is revelatory.

The Van Dyck-ish black velvet hue of this recording, and the elegant, coy and melancholy dialogue of these players is eloquently caught by Thomas Grubb.  Grubb’s production of the CD has captured the kind of intimacy between the protagonists of this recording that one meets in the paintings of Vermeer; just as in Vermeer, one also feels a privileged voyeur on the proceedings.

This is clearly the finest recording to have come my way this year.  The international press is already taking notice and big things will surely be in store for this CD.

 

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