The Art of Melancholy – Songs by JOHN DOWLAND – Iestyn Davies, countertenor/ Thomas Dunford, lute – Hyperion

The Art of Melancholy – Songs by JOHN DOWLAND – Iestyn Davies, countertenor/ Thomas Dunford, lute – Hyperion CDA68007, 76:33 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:

It’s not that Iestyn Davis has no sense of style in the music—he does. It’s not that he has no technique required by this music—again, he does. And it’s not that he lacks dramatic skill and the ability to portray the words in an affectionate and moving manner—he has this aplenty. And for many people, this might just be enough in this jam-packed and aptly-named disc that focuses on the more glum nature of Dowland’s art. I must also confess that the dubious art of the countertenor has improved greatly the last 20 years, with most of its more famous exponents quite adept at their trade. Nevertheless, to me, when compared to the finest altos and sopranos, the voice has a thin, rather nasal, and unnatural quality to it that also tends to confound emotional reactions.

Since the role essentially started in the church and only later found its way onto a broader stage, especially when the castratos began to fade, one can question the need for it. Indeed, it almost dissipated into nothing for a couple of hundred years, and the new attention it is getting is largely due to the revival of interest in baroque opera and the stylistic preclusions of the period instrument movement. Davies is certainly one of its youngest and best exponents on the current scene, and he is certainly adept at presenting Dowland’s muse; but I find generally that there is a disconnect between his portrayals and my own reactions to it. When I listen to a singer like Kathleen Battle performing Come again, sweet love I feel transported both in the naturalness of her voice and the very affecting manner that she puts the song across. When Davies sings it I don’t have the same response; I appreciate the performance on many different levels, but the essence of the song remains concealed.

However, I realize that this is a very personal comment on the countertenor art, and that many disagree. For those who do, they will be transported by these readings. For others not so sure, better to investigate the many other Dowland collections out there first, or at least listen to samples of this one before investing. The sound here is outstanding, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the gorgeous playing of lutenist Thomas Dunford, a genuine marvel.

TrackList:

Sorrow, stay
Come again, sweet love doth now invite
Go Crystal tears
Mrs Winter’s Jump
I saw my Lady weepe
Flow my teares (Lacrimæ)
Can she excuse my wrongs? (First Booke of Songes, 1597)
Behold a wonder here
Semper Dowland Semper Dolens
In darkness let me dwell
Time stands still
All ye, whom Love or Fortune hath betray’d
Say love if ever thou didst find
Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares
Come away, come, sweet love
Shall I strive with wordes to move?
Burst forth my tears
Fortune my foe
Come heavy sleep
Now, O now, I needs must part

—Steven Ritter

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