"The Knight of the Lute" Mathew Wadsworth – Music from The Varietie of Lute Lessons – Matthew Wadsworth, lute – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 25408; 62:00 ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:
Music for the Lute reached its apogee in England during the Elizabethan/Jacobean era when possibly the instrument’s greatest exponent – John Dowland – was active. The lute was in many ways a more dynamic instrument than the keyboards of the period, possessing a sound with significantly greater vigor than most of the delicate virginals and clavichords that were nearly ubiquitous in music loving households. The lute possessed the additional advantage of easy portability making it indispensible for impromptu dances and masques. It is hardly a surprise that most pieces written for the instrument are dances or short dramatic works with poetic or whimsical titles. Collections of lute music tend to reflect this trend.
In 1610, Robert Dowland (the son of lutenist John Dowland) published a pair of important collections for the instrument in London. One was ‘A Musical Banquet’ which contained songs accompanied by the lute. The second one was ‘A Varietie of Lute Lessons’ which is a collection of lute solos. Composers that are present in this collection include Robert’s father John Dowland, Anthonie Holborne, Daniel Batchelar, Robert Ballard, Alfonso Ferrabosco, John Perrichon, Laurencini of Rome and Thomas Morley.
Lutenist Mathew Wadsworth writes that there is no doubt in his mind that ‘Varietie’ is mainly the work of John Dowland, but that it was published under Robert’s name as a gentle push upwards to assist his burgeoning musical career. There was also the issue of the elder Dowland’s continuing difficulties in finding favor at the English court; it is possible that he felt that a work produced by someone without his accumulated baggage might be accepted with less prejudice. Unfortunately, Robert did not receive a court appointment until two years after his father’s death in 1626.
John Dowland (1563-1626) was the most talented lutenist of his day. But he had become a Catholic following a trip to France and he displayed a personality that was notoriously contentious. Dowland was consistently overlooked for the post of court lutenist which forced him to seek court employment on the European continent. He spent many years in exile, which were as difficult as they were productive. During these unsettled years he composed and published his first three Books of Ayres as well as the famous Lachrimae. He also collected many of the pieces written by foreign lutenists that appear in the collection featured on this recording. There are forty-two pieces in six musical forms (seven of each form) in the Varietie of Lute Lessons. These forms were all popular at the time of publication: Fantasies, Pavans, Galliards, Almains, Corantos and Voltas.
Unquestionably a collection featuring music of delicacy and beauty, one immediately senses that the Varietie was assembled to entertain the ear of the connoisseur. In a competitive world here was a work that could easily serve as an application for employment to the very individuals responsible for offering court appointments. Matthew Wadsworth emphasizes the sheer sonorous beauty of the 19 pieces on this disc. He exhibits a feathery touch that is coupled with an unerring sense of the music’s constantly shifting but always subtle dynamics.
As a young guitarist immersing himself in the Renaissance and Baroque musical repertoire, Wadsworth made a crucial discovery. He realized as he played them that many of the guitar transcriptions written by others were actually taken from the Varietie of Lute Lessons. Following his accidental discovery of the lute as an undergraduate at the Royal Academy of Music, he returned to the same pieces. A visually impaired musician, Wadsworth developed a Braille system for notating lute tablature; He absorbed the stylistic brilliance of guitarist Julian Bream through countless hours of listening to recordings. The fruits of these labors can be heard on this splendid disc. Wadsworth’s playing displays the refinement of taste coupled with rhythmic precision and beauty of tone that one associates with Julian Bream.
Nowhere are these traits more on display than in the five pieces attributed to John Dowland recorded on this disc, three of which are earthy galliards. Another aspect of Wadsworth’s artistry, his facility for conveying a miniature drama in music, can be found on the four Fantasies contained here. Wadsworth’s choices from the Varietie were largely instinctive with a view to representing all styles and genres of the book. He has chosen both wisely and well. This is an excellent recording. The multichannel sound is crystal clear but is mostly in the service of an accurate presentation of the lute which is enveloped in a warm and realistic sonic space. Each note blooms as the delicate harmonics reverberate. The sense of reality is palpable as we approach the feeling of a live performance.
— Mike Birman