in: Reviews

October 24, 2009

Orpheus in England: Dowland and Purcell Shine in Boston Early Music Festival Concert

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Soprano Emma Kirkby and lutenist Jakob Lindberg presented a duo recital of music by John Dowland and Henry Purcell (1659-95) on October 23 at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge.

Dowland (1563-1626) was England’s greatest exponent of the “ayre” for solo voice with lute accompaniment, which became popular around the turn of the 16th century. Set to mostly anonymous “verses for song” with simple rhyme schemes, Dowland’s songs are more complex than most and encompass an astonishing range of emotions. This was brilliantly exploited by Kirkby, who knows how to shape a tone for expressive effect (sometimes even approaching it from the flat side), how to vary dynamics in a straight-toned delivery that never seems forced, and just where to insert a graceful ornament or variation. The melancholic mood for which Dowland was known was set with the two opening songs sung without pause (and also without notes): “Come, heavy sleepe, the image of true death” from his First Book of Songs or Ayres, and “Shall I strive with words to move /When deeds receive not due regard?” Kirkby rose from her chair and moved about for the next song, “Shepherd in a shade,” couched in the lighter tone of narrative pastoral. Melancholy returned in the final Dowland selection, “In darkness let me dwell.” Here images of dark, damp, and imprisonment were reflected in bold chromatic inflections, unusual intervals, and recitative-like rhythmic freedom.

Dowland was also famous as a lute virtuoso and composed numerous solo pieces for his instrument. Among the most famous are “Lachrimae” (Seven Teares) Pavans, the theme of which was later set in the song “Flow my teares.” Playing on a beautiful 10-course Renaissance lute, ca. 1590, the “oldest lute in playable condition with its original sound board,” lutenist Jakob Lindberg supplied elegant ornamentation for the repeated strains of the melancholy pavan, following the stately dance with the lively Earl of Essex galliard. The second set for lute paired an improvisatory prelude with a Fantasia in which fugal passages alternated echo effects and fast, triple-time sections. Here Lindberg’s ability to play contrapuntally with absolute clarity, no mean feat on the lute, as well as in freer styles, came brilliantly to the fore.

Born almost a hundred years after Dowland, Purcell’s style remained quintessentially English while absorbing French dance rhythms and Italian melodic fluency. His career coincided with the restored monarchy and its love of music and theatre, and although he wrote only one “true opera,” Dido and Aeneas, he composed innumerable songs for plays and masques, several of which we heard at Friday’s concert. Purcell’s well-known ability to carry a continuous and often irregular melodic line over a regular, repeating chaconne bass was demonstrated in the lighthearted “She loves and she confesses too,” as well as in the lover’s lament, “What a sad fate is mine.” Kirkby’s light and flexible voice and sure musicianship easily mastered the rapid passage work in “Fly swift, ye hours,” while in the famous “mad song,” “Bess of Bedlam” she demonstrated  grotesque contrasts of affect with consummate skill. The final song, “Music for a while,” was simply beautiful, its sinuous melodic line stretched out over a long and harmonically ambiguous ground bass pattern.

Lindberg provided a sonorous basso continuo accompaniment to the Purcell songs, and also contributed  his own idiomatic adaptations of six short harpsichord pieces by Purcell, showing us just how versatile the lute can be.

We are grateful to Emma Kirkby and Jakob Lindberg for their artistry and to the Boston Early Music Festival for the chance to hear this too-seldom performed repertory. The choice of performance venue, however, was unfortunate. This is true chamber music, and the vast neo-Romanesque space of the First Church did not do it justice. Lindberg’s lute often sounded muted, and much of  Kirkby’s beautifully nuanced diction was lost. That said, who would want to turn away any of the enthusiastic listeners who filled the church to capacity?

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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