Soprano Emma Kirkby and lutenist Jakob Lindberg presented a duo recital of music by John Dowland and Henry Purcell on October 23 at the First Church (Congregational in Cambridge.)
Dowland 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.
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 famous, melancholy “Lachrimae” (Seven Teares) Pavans. 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.
Purcell, born 100 years after Dowland, composed innumerable songs for plays and masques, several of which we heard at Friday’s concert. Kirkby’s light and flexible voice and sure musicianship easily mastered the rapid passage work and 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.
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? [Click title for full review.]
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