In our noisy, breakneck world, it is hard to think of a better palliative than the lute songs and solos of John Dowland (1563-1626). When performed by gifted musicians, they mesmerize the listener with their intimacy and beauty. In Jordan Hall last night, the Boston Early Music Festival presented Emma Kirkby and Paul O’Dette, who demonstrated how the composer’s songs and solo pieces cross-fertilized each other, bewitching the capacity audience.
The program was entitled “Time Stands Still” after a song from Dowland’s Book III, and indeed the songs chosen were nearly all of slow to moderate tempi, inhabited a dynamic range that rarely rose above mezzo piano, and most were infused with yearning. The solo lute pieces made a fitting adjunct, as many of the composer’s songs, if not most, exist also in purely instrumental form, and we often do not know which version came first. The program proceeded chronologically with a handful of “ayres” from each of Dowland’s four books.
The First book (1597) song, Go christall teares, set the tone with its delicate, sweet melancholy. Kirkby displayed remarkable vocal control, swelling and tapering, to contrast with the object of the poet’s desire “whose frozen rigor like forgetfull death, feeles never any touch of my desarte.” (Dowland songs speaking of unrequited love are, of course, plentiful.) The set finished with melancholy of a darker hue in Come, heavy sleep. Kirkby’s messa di voce on the many sustained notes created a feeling of heaviness and Weltschmerz, and hinted at a yearning for death, sleep being “the image of true death.”
In the middle of the group, however, came the wonderfully contrasted swagger and brilliant passagework of The King of Denmark, his Galliard for lute solo. The lutenist composer served more than seven years in the court of Christian IV of Denmark, actually being a spy for the English court. To quote O’Dette’s notes: “Because of the delicate sound of the lute, lutenists were among the only members of court given permission to circulate through the royal family’s private chambers, where their instrument could be properly appreciated. But this special privilege provided the opportunity to overhear private conversations, making lutenists excellent candidates as secret agents!”
The set from Book II (1600) had a weeping motif, starting with the famous lute piece Lachrimae, the basis of many sets of variations by Dowland’s contemporaries as well as his own song, Flow my teares. O’Dette gave the solo piece a beautiful performance, restrained but moving. Kirkby followed suit in the song yet managed to highlight a few important words, notably the unexpected “hell” (“Happie, happie they that in hell feele not the worlds despite”). The first half closed with the breathtaking In darknesse let me dwell, taken from an anthology published by the composer’s son. This yearning for death was characterized by many aching augmented-triad chords, enhanced by Kirkby’s messa di voce. The spell cast by the musicians was palpable in the long silence at the song’s conclusion.
The second half was, thankfully, somewhat lighter in mood. In Time stands still from Book III (1603), Kirkby and O’Dette achieved this stasis. Defying the axiom that the only thing that does not change is change itself, the poet professes unchanging faith honoring a feminine personage—it is not at all difficult to read Elizabeth I in the year of her death. This set ended with a bit of subtle humor (a rare commodity in this program!) from Kirkby. When Phoebus first did Daphne love, telling of Apollo’s frustrated attempt to seduce Daphne, also makes oblique but clear reference to the Virgin Queen: quoth Apollo, “Past fifteen none (none but one) should live a maid.”
Some songs of the concluding set from Book IV (titled A Pilgrimes Solace) dealt, appropriately enough, with leave-taking, parting is such sweet sorrow, etc. Perhaps the stand-out item, though, was the only explicitly religious song on the program, Thou mighty God, which used the Biblical stories of Job, David oppressed by Saul, and the “poore criple by the poole” as examples of suffering overcome by faith, hope, and patience. The performers took us on an extraordinary pilgrimage through jolting harmonies and phrases to achieve a final serene destination. The program closed with a final lute piece, Farewell, the germ of which goes from dominant to tonic through a series of semitones and oddly foreshadows the subject of J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy fugue. This lute fantasia quotes many of Dowland’s songs and, like the preceding song, generates emotional force with chromatic harmonies, especially the numerous tangy false relations. O’Dette’s playing was magical and honored by an extended silence before applause began. The single encore, Can she excuse, provided a heartily enjoyable quasi-contrast to so much unrequited love, with Kirkby playing the coquette.
It perhaps should be mentioned that O’Dette’s lute was slightly temperamental, requiring retuning somewhat frequently; also, Kirkby’s enunciation, excellent early on, became less so over the course of the program. These things, though, are as naught in the face of such superb singing and playing. Within a rather narrow spectrum of mood and dynamics, the artists found a remarkable range of subtle nuances.