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The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi (c. 1612/1620) [National Gallery of Art]
18 Jul 2010

Darkness Visible: Dowland and beyond

This was a recital of concentrated intensity — a remarkable dialogue between texts, timbres and idioms, across ages and among performers.

Darkness Visible: Dowland and beyond

Mark Padmore, tenor; Lawrence Power, viola; Elizabeth Kenny, lute and

Above: The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi (c. 1612/1620) [National Gallery of Art]


Taking the music of the enigmatic and complex figure, John Dowland — lutenist, actor, Elizabethan diplomat and suspected spy — as its starting point and impetus, the programme explored some of the many transformations of Dowland, revealing the performers’ innate understanding of the myriad ways in which words and music ‘speak’ to their audiences.

Even the most simple and ‘straightforward’ of Dowland’s own lute songs and airs are rarely without courtly sophistication and ironic conceits, and while the opening song, ‘Away with these self-loving lads’, relates a folky narrative reminiscent of pastoral comedy, the alternations between music and declamation, forward momentum and dramatic pause, reminded us of the theatrical context of many of the first performances of these songs. ‘O sweet woods’ demonstrated the creamy lyricism of Padmore’s tenor, floating and ethereal in the higher registers, firm and centred, even warmly earthy in the lower regions. A rhythmic strength and flexible control of tempo was apparent in ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’.

Political intrigue — shrouded in a coded language of betrayals and reprisals — underpins Dowland’s ‘If my complaints could passions move’, as a melancholy lover’s abstract address to an absent Love, masks a very specific entreaty to Elizabeth I on behalf of Dowland’s patron, the Earl of Essex, for an end to exile and a re-admittance to the court and to the Queen’s heart. Employing ornament both for exquisite melodic effect and to highlight textual nuance, Padmore’s earnest entreaty, ‘Yet thou dost hope when I despair,/ And when I hope, thou mak’st me hope in vain’, would surely have moved any regal sensibility; while an unaffected lightness added a gentle poignancy to the avowal, ‘That I do live, it I thy pow’r:/ That I desire it is thy worth’.

Britten drew upon this melody in his Lachrymae for solo viola; after much fragmentation and development, the theme is sonorously sounded in the piano bass in the final moments, establishing a destination for the unfulfilled searching of the preceding bars. Widely regarded as one of the foremost viola players in the world, Lawrence Power created an heightened intimacy which recalled the contexts of the original Elizabethan performances. With melancholy tenderness, Power conveyed the restless tension at the heart of Britten’s lament, the veiled ending astonishing for its delicate restraint.

Returning to Dowland himself, Kenny’s and Padmore’s powerful rendition of the mournful, solipsistic ‘In darkness let me dwell’, brought the first part of this concert to a close; but no focus or intensity were lost during the interval, as proceedings recommenced seamlessly, opening with Thomas Adès’ piano work, Darknesse visible, a reinterpretation of Milton’s poem, played with supreme musicianship by Andrew West. West appreciated both the architectural lucidity of Adès’ eerie composition — creating exquisite spatial forms from the contrasting registers and textures of the weaving contrapuntal lines — and its troubled beauty, placing just the right emphasis on pungent dissonances and the interplay of sound and silence, anger and restraint.

Hieronymus Kapsberger, a lutenist from Italy (despite his father’s Germanic name), was typical of those foreign composers whose music found its way into many Elizabethan collections, gathered while their owners were undertaking a Grand Tour of the continent. Performing Kapsberger’s ‘Toccata, Passacaglia and Coloscione’, Elizabeth Kenny’s controlled artistry and gentle but focused tone brought to mind Virginia Woolf: ‘Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron’ - words which perfectly capture the combination of fragile beauty and inner strength that characterised Kenny’s playing. She relished the chromatic twists and piquancies, and the exotic ‘Turkish’ colours of the ‘Coloscione’.

Another less familiar name followed, Sigismondo d’India, whose ‘Lamento di Giasone’ is a larger-scale dramatic song, alternating recitative and aria, accompanied by the rich, expansive tones of the theorbo. Padmore and Kenny moved effortlessly between action and contemplation, enjoying the madrigalian harmonies and word painting, the delayed cadences and the contrasts between major and minor tonalities. The serene, pianissimo stillness of ‘O diletto moral, com’in un punto/ Cangiasti insieme e qualitate e stato!’ (‘O happiness of mortals, how in one brief moment/ you have changed both yoru nature and condition!’), was transformed to an uneasy swiftness, ‘Mori, morto al dolore,/ Mori, morto mio core!’ (‘Die, killed by grief,/ die my dead heart!’).

Passing, by way of a sincere reading of Henry Lawes’ setting of Philip Sidney’s ‘O sweet woods’ and ‘Tavolo: In quell gelato core’ (‘In that icy heart’), to two songs by Frescobaldi, ‘Cosi mi disprezzate?’ (‘Thus you despise me?’) and ‘Se l’aura spira’) (‘If the soft winds blows’), Padmore and Kenny demonstrated an uncanny empathy and the ability to let this music speak for itself. Giulio Caccini’s ‘Amarilli mia bella’ brought the performance to an exquisite close. Padmore’s purity of tone, elegance of phrasing and clarity of diction were astonishing: rarely, can words and music have seemed more unified in sense and sentiment; seldom does the actual performance of a song seem so integral to its meaning.

Claire Seymour

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