Monday 23 March 2015

Flow my tears - Iestyn Davies

Flow my tears - Iestyn Davies
Johnson, Dowland, Danyel, Campion, Muhly, Hume; Iestyn Davies, Thomas Dunford, Jonathan Manson; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 10 2015
Star rating: 5.0

New light on an old form - lute songs ancient and modern

This new disc from counter-tenor Iestyn Davies is on the Wigmore Hall Live label. A live recording of a Wigmore Hall concert from 5 July 2013, Davies is joined by lutenist Thomas Dunford and viol player Jonathan Manson for a programme of music for lute, viol and voice. There are a couple of interesting aspects to the programme, first the participation of viol player Jonathan Manson adds an interesting extra depth to some of the lute songs, and secondly the 16th and 17th century music by Robert Johnson, John Dowland, John Danyel, Thomas Campion and Tobias Hume, is joined by the world premiere of Nico Muhly's Old Bones.

Our knowledge of Elizabethan lute-songs is very much defined by the music of John Dowland (1563-1626), with his sophisticated talent, professional melancholy and constant frustration at never achieving a position at Queen Elizabeth's court. In fact his music was popular and he was professionally successful in monetary terms, and did achieve a court position late in life under King James. Dowland was of course simply part of a lute culture, in which songs and lute music were written, performed, published and circulated in manuscript collections.

Robert Johnson (c1583-1633) was appointed Queen Elizabeth's court lutenist in 1597 when he was only a teenager (which must, presumably, have annoyed Dowland greatly). Johnson also wrote music for the theatre and here Davies sings Have you seen the bright lily grow from Ben Jonson's comedy The Devil is an Ass (1616) and Care-charming sleep from John Fletcher's Valentinian (1610), plus a charming little song From the famous peak of Derby (also by Ben Jonson) which idealises life away from court.

Music circulated in manuscript as much as printed copies, and the collection copied by Margaret Board, one of Dowland's pupils, is an important source for his music. Praeludium only occurs here, it is a solo lute piece which demonstrates the player's virtuoso skill, a brilliant take on an academic exercise. Thomas Dunford follows it with the lovely little A Fancy.

John Danyel (1564-c1626) was content to spend much of his working life in his native Oxford, only being tempted to the fleshpots of the theatre in Bristol and London quite late in life. His only publication is Songs for lute, viol and voice of 1606, which includes the viol part printed upside down so lutenist and viol player could sit opposite each other and share the same book (a brilliant idea, but it probably drove the printers mad!). Davies, Dunford and Manson perform two of Danyel's large scale, three part, pieces both in their way melancholy. Mrs M.E. Her funeral tears for the death of her husband and Can doleful notes? The first dealing, obviously, with the unknown Mrs M.E.'s laments and the latter on what music can best express grief. Danyel's melancholy inclines to the chromatic, with the vocal lines having an interesting complexity, complemented by the lute and given depth with the viol. In between, a more lyrical song, Why canst thou not? but no less melancholy in intent.

Never weather-beaten sail is the best known song by Thomas Campion (1567-1620), and he is the only one of the well-known lute-song composers of the era who wrote both words and music. Like Dowland, Campion was apt at combining melancholy with a good tune.

Nico Muhly has written in a wide variety of genres and does not shy away from modern trends in music. But he has a traditional boy chorister background and also does not shy away either from writing interestingly quirky pieces which will fit in with existing genres. His Our Present Charter has just been recorded by the Choir of the Temple Church (see my review), and here Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford premiere Old Bones! which was commissioned for them by the Wigmore Hall. The piece sets Muhly's own conflation of texts, including news reports and an interview with Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, relating to the finding of the grave of King Richard III which Muhly combines with texts praising the man who is said to have killed the king, Rhys ap Tomas. The result, whilst in one movement, is a multi-section work which in structure harks back to the Danyel pieces, and whose writing for voice and lute relates to that style. Muhly writes sympathetically and lyrically for the two, but he also enjoys the complexity of the medium. He clearly enjoys the textures that the combination of voice and lute gives him, and never resorts to note spinning. Old Bones! is an intelligent response to an old form, and receives a superb performance here.

The First Part of Ayres was published in 1605 by Tobias Hume (c1579-1645). It is a book of songs and dances for viol and the title refers to Hume's claim that the viol was equal too and better off without the lute! Here Manson demonstrates the validity of this premise by performing three numbers from the collection, A Souldier's Galliard, Loves Farewell and A Souldiers Resolution. The first a stately dance, the second a series of wistful variations and the last an imaginative battle description.

With the songs by John Dowland we reach the best known items in this repertoire. The selection of works on the disc helps to put Dowland into context (he and Danyel were almost exact contemporaries and had parallel careers). They demonstrate Dowland's ability to create profoundly expressive music which was also memorable. Dowland had a gift for writing ear-worms, but also an uncanny knack for using them to write profoundly expressive and serious music. Here Davies and Dunford five of the best known, ranging from from the not-so-simple strophic song Come again, sweet love doth now invite and Can she excuse my wrongs to the more complex single stanza free works like In darkness let me dwell. The profoundly beautiful Flow my tears is in fact a pavan (Dowland's only essay in the form), whilst Now, O now I needs must part is a galliard and it was performed linked to The Frog Galliard as the performers to here. (The Frog of the Galliard, is almost certainly the Duc d'Alencon who was wooing Queen Elizabeth).

This is a well packed programme lasting 78 minutes, and the disc includes complete texts and an informative article by Rick Jones and Nico Muhly.

This is a lovely disc, and introduces the rich world of Elizabethan lute song in superb performances. Iestyn Davies is on peak form, singing with superb control and combining a sense of line with an intense feel for the words. His diction is superb and the beauty of tone stunning. He is well partnered by the lutenist Thomas Dunford (born in Paris in 1988) and viol player Jonathan Manson.

Essential listening for anyone who loves fine music and fine singing.

Robert Johnson (c1583-1633) - Have you seen the bright lily grow? [2.48]
Robert Johnson (c1583-1633) - Care-charming sleep [3.35]
Robert Johnson (c1583-1633) - From the famous peak of Derby [1.26]
John Dowland (1563-1626) - Preludium [1.20]
John Dowland (1563-1626) - A Fancy [2.11]
John Danyel (1564-c1626) - Mrs M.E Her funeral tears for the death of her husband [8.11]
John Danyel (1564-c1626) - Why canst thou not? [1.19]
John Danyel (1564-c1626) - Can doleful notes? [7.35]
Thomas Campion (1567-1645) - A Souldier's Galliard [1.27]
Thomas Campion (1567-1645) - Loves Farewell [3.44]
Thomas Campion (1567-1645) - A Souldiers Resolution [3.03]
John Dowland (1563-1626) - Come again, sweet love doth invite [4.00]
John Dowland (1563-1626) - In darkness let me dwell [3.56]
John Dowland (1563-1626) - Can she excuse my wrongs [2.15]
John Dowland (1563-1626) - Flow my tears [4.25]
John Dowland (1563-1626) - Now, O now I needs must part/Frog Galliard [5.20]
Thomas Campion (1567-1645) - I care not for these ladies [2.00]
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Thomas Dunford (lute)
Jonathan Manson (viol)
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall on 5 July 2013
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