John Dowland is a composer with a highly sensitive soul. His many, many songs—achieving an unparalleled popularity in his time—speak of love, politics, daily life, and the fear of death. There is hardly a topic that he did not cover. His First Book of Songs even went through six editions, something rarely head of in his time. Decca has released his complete works on l’Oiseau-Lyre, a standard setter that can be had for only about $55 still. There have been other very worthy releases, though not every voice is suited to the music.
There is something about the intimate and curiously personal nature of his music that demands a very cautious and almost contrived approach. Not everyone who is successful in lieder in general is able to make a go of it when it comes to Dowland. And even those who “specialize” in music of the Renaissance walk on egg shells if they make an assumption that that particular specialty automatically makes them fit for Dowland performance—it does not.
What it takes is an extreme sensitivity to the text and also an appreciation of tonal texture. These songs are most often performed on a lute or guitar, and there is oft times more of an adjustment that needs to be made while singing with those instruments than just lowering the volume as opposed to singing with a piano. Mark Padmore, for the most part is successful in negotiating the difficulties these songs produce. His vocal coloring is sometimes deficient in my opinion—I long for some more color in the voice, which the lute accompaniment (excellently rendered by Elizabeth Kenny) actually encourages—and I also feel that there are opportunities for more emotive content from him. But few people are wholly successful in all of these songs, and as a general experience Padmore has produced a quality Dowland album than is enhanced by his lyrical proclivities and the remarkable smooth texture of his instrument.
As an interesting aside, Hyperion has seen to include the wonderful Britten guitar piece Nocturnal, written for the great Julian Bream in 1964. His versions still set the standard, especially his latest on EMI (2000). Britten, who was a great variation composer, gives us the variations first and the theme last, Dowland’s Come, heavy Sleep, performed on this disc right before the Britten. Not that it matters—the Britten, for all its wonders, feels like a sore thumb interjected into the middle of this recital, and I am not sure how well it works programmatically, though Craig Ogden’s performance is perfectly formed and very well played. Overall this is a very creditable recital that does honor to the Dowland discography, and Hyperion’s fine sound only adds to its desirability.
Say, Love, if ever thou didst find
Away with these self-loving lads
Fantasia No. 7
Come again! Sweet love
Sleep, wayward thoughts—
Come, heavy sleep
Flow, my tears
I must complain
If my complaints could passions move
Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliard
What if I never speed?
To ask for all thy love
Now, O now, I needs must part
In darkness let me dwell
— Steven Ritter