An Elizabethan poet-composer, he expressed his melancholy in poems that speak of anxiety, regret and sorrow, and he set his troubled words to music of
great imaginative power and originality.
At the Wigmore Hall, countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford presented a sequence of Dowland’s songs and instrumental pieces, interspersed
with readings delivered with eloquent and wit by Colin Hurley. In Davies’ words, they sought to embrace ‘the songs and solo lute airs as the expressions of
a man seeking to find words to say how words fail’, by engaging in ‘a dialogue that enriches both us and the artistic subject of Dowland itself’.
This was a performance of quiet concentration, exquisite poise and deeply poignant sentiment. So perfect was the sequence and union of music and word, that
I struggle in my search for the words which can convey how affectingly Davies, Dunford and Hurley communicated Dowland’s spirit as embodied in the
composer’s creative voice placed within the context of other voices of the period.
Davies and Dunford are no strangers to this repertory. The Art of Melancholy,
recorded for Hyperion in 2014, was followed by a recital, with viol player Jonathan Manson, of music by Dowland and his contemporaries which was released
by the Wigmore Live label in 2015 (Flow My Tears). With Hurley
positioned stage right, and the musicians seated centre in relaxed fashion, an absorbing intimacy was immediately established. Davies’ delivery was
pristine and unassuming: musically stylised but without undue fussiness, the text always clearly defined. His countertenor was finely coloured and firm of
weight; the melodic lines had beguiling lyrical grace and directness. Dunford’s accompaniments were intricate and mercurial, and created a real sense of
Words from the huge, encyclopaedic Anatomy of Melancholy, produced by the English clergyman Robert Burton in 1621, got things underway. Burton
explores a dizzying assortment of mental afflictions, including what might now be called depression, seeking to explain and account for all human emotion
and thought. The nature, symptoms and causes of melancholy are described in rich, sometimes rambling, prose which shifts in tone from the serious to
satirical. Hurley expertly captured Burton’s rollicking rhythm and phrasing, and the energy created by the words was passed to Dunford, whose Praleludium seemed to interrupt the text with extemporary vigour.
Such urgency carried into ‘All ye whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed’ where the lute’s alert explorations were balanced by the gentle wistfulness of
Davies’ portrait of the poet-singer as a man ‘That sings my sorrows like the dying swan’. The performers demonstrated a persuasive appreciation of these
songs’ frequent trajectory towards a powerful closing image. Here, the repeat of the final two lines - ‘Tears, sighs and ceaseless cries alone I spend:/ My
woe wants comfort, and my sorrow end’ - grew in power, the lute’s increasing melodic engagement with the vocal line adding earnestness and resolution. Such
sentiments turned to anger in Michael Drayford’s Sonnet of 1594 (the year in which Dowland’s Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres was published):
‘Cupid, dumb Idol, peevish Saint of love,/
No more shalt thou nor Saint nor Idol be.’
Davies began ‘Behold a wonder here’ began with striking power and focus: his rhetorical announcement of surprise and admiration that ‘Love hat receiv’d his
sight,/ Which many hundred years/ Hath not beheld the light’ grew in animation as the song progression. But, the song ends with a warning that the beauty
that love can now behold might prove to be ‘of double kind’; as Samuel Daniel confirms in his Sonnet 47: ‘Read in my face a volume of despairs,/ The
wailing Iliads of my tragic woe,/ Drawn with my blood and printed with my cares/ Wrought by her hand, that I have honor’d so.’
‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’ was the epitome of courtly grace. Davies’ tone was sweet and pure, the phrasing beautifully controlled. The
contrast between silky vocal line and vivacious lute was wonderfully expressive. Dowland’s volta ‘Mrs. Winter’s Jump’ followed, segue; in
Dunford’s hand the leaps were light and the lively dance retained an air of fancy.
Ben Johnson’s ‘The Hourglass’ - with its bitter image of draining dust re-imagined as the body of a love, who ‘in his mistress’ flame playing like a fly,
Was turned to cinders by her eye’ - was the perfect prelude to ‘Time Stands Still’ which Davies and Dunford performed with unaffected loveliness. The full
spread chords of the opening conveyed the text’s image of motionless Time, ‘with gazing on her face’, while Davies’ subtly emphasised the abstract nouns,
‘Fortune, Love and Time’ to convey the text’s central idea: ‘My settled vows and spotless faith no fortune can remove/ Courage shall show my inward faith,
and faith shall try my love.’
Extracts from Dowland’s letter of 10 November 1597 to Sir Robert Sidney - a patron of music who was godfather to Dowland’s son, Robert - enveloped the
following sequence of songs. ‘My thoughts are wing’d with hopes’ had a buoyant rhythmic spirit while the searching harmonies of ‘Say, Love, if ever thou
didst find’ created momentum towards the concluding declaration: ‘To her then yield thy shafts and bow,/ That can command affection so: Love is free.’
Davies’ skilfully used the text in ‘I saw my lady weep’ to evoke the paradoxical image of Sorrow ‘made fair’ in the beloved’s fair eyes and woeful visage,
as Dunford’s lute alertly moved from the shadows to the foreground, and then retreated, sealing the close with a chilling air of loftiness.
The harmonic twists and the lute’s cadential arguments in ‘Flow my tears’, from Dowland’s Second Booke of 1600 wondrously transfigured profound
despair into the consoling belief that those in hell are happy because they ‘Feel not the world’s despite’. Davies’ countertenor projected the opening
request of ‘Sorrow, stay’ - ‘Sorrow, stay lend true repentant tears,/ To a woeful wretched wight’ - with commanding weight until the threat of endless pain
led to gentler entreaties to Pity, ‘help now or never’. While the singer’s repetitions, ‘down, down, down I fall,/ Down and arise I never shall’, created a
compelling impetus, the rising gestures of the lute seemed to offer hope.
In 1613 the poet Sir William Leighton published a book of devotional verse entitled The teares or lamentacions of a sorrowfull soule; the
following year, he reissued the collection with musical settings of his poems by English composers of the day. Leighton’s ‘prefatory poem in praise of John
Dowland’ preceded Dunford’s elaborate articulation of Dowland’s ‘The King of Denmark’s Galliard’ the contrapuntal and rhythmic intricacies of which carried
the music far from the physical movements of the dance and into speculative, quasi-spiritual realms. Dunford’s intent gaze seemed to draw Davies into ‘Can
she excuse my wrongs’, in which the rhythmic engagement of voice and lute was enriching as the performers built to the insistent plea, ‘Dear, make me happy
still be granting this,/ Or cut off delays if that die I must’.
Rose Tremain’s 2000 novel, Music and Silence, conjures the claustrophobic intensity of the Danish court of King Christian IV, where Dowland
himself would find employment. The novel tells of the fictional Engish lutenist Peter Claire, who, summoned to join the king’s royal orchestra, finds
himself designated the king’s ‘Angel’ because of the purity of his physical beauty, and falls deeply in love with the beautiful companion to Queen Kirsten,
the king’s adulterous wife. The unrest that Tremain evokes was a pertinent prelude to one of Dowland’s greatest songs, ‘In darkness let me dwell’. At the
start, the lute seemed to evoke the dry coldness of the Danish court, while the daring dissonances and rhythmic freedom of the vocal line expressed
desolation. At the close, the repetition of the opening line trailed away into a disquieting silence which could only be answered by ‘Semper Dowland,
semper dolens’ in which Dunford’s rapt, quasi-improvisatory presentation of Dowland’s haunting harmonic shades and solemn but exquisite melodic lines was
mesmerising. One was reminded of the words of the composer’s contemporary, Richard Barnfield, which praised Dowland’s ‘heavenly touch upon the lute doth
ravish human sense’.
The Third and Last Booke of Songes or Aires was published in 1603, while Dowland was still in the employ of Christian IV, and its Introduction
preceded ‘Go, crystal tears’, in which Davies animated the beautifully even vocal line with subtle inflection. An excerpt from Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612) - which playfully questioned the paradigms upon which Renaissance culture was founded - introduced ‘Come again, sweet love
doth now invite’, which Davies imbued with fluidity and a spirit of freedom. In Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ the protagonist Pozdnyshev confesses
how he murdered his wife after becoming jealous of her relationship with a musician, and an excerpt from the novella formed the final spoken item, leading
eloquently into ‘Now, O now I needs must part’. The rhythmic irregularities of the vocal line in this final song were skilfully shaped into elegant
contours by Davies, each stanza concluding with a refrain, which blames the singer’s discourtesy on the lady who has refused him, and which inspired
reflective elaborations from Dunford.
Davies has described Dunford as the ‘teenage rock star of the lute’; so it was fitting that the duo offered an unusual encore, Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in
Heaven’, which Clapton wrote after the death of his four-year-old son. The delicate rendering of Clapton’s gentle musings was spellbinding, concluding a
wonderful recital characterised by an unpretentious intensity that was truly magical.
Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Thomas Dunford (lute), Colin Hurley (speaker)
John Dowland: Preludium, ‘All ye whom love or fortune hath betrayed’, ‘Mrs Winter’s Jump’, ‘Behold a wonder here’, Come away, come sweet love’, A fancy,
‘Time stands still’, ‘My thoughts are winged with hopes’, ‘Say, love if ever thou didst find’, ‘I saw my Lady weep’, ‘Flow my tears’, Sorrow, stay, lend
true repentant tears’, ‘Shall I strive with words to move’, ‘The King of Denmark, his Galliard’, ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’, ‘In darkness let me dwell’,
‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’, ‘Go, crystal tears’, ‘Come again! Sweet love doth now invite’, ‘Now, O now I needs must part’.