When Music Weeps

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

During a relatively long career in music, I’ve noticed that most people–listeners and performers–claim to prefer “happy” music to what they consider “sad” or “melancholy”. This distinction usually comes down to a preference for faster tempos in major keys, hopefully with a big, loud ending, conceding the necessity of slower, minor-key pieces for program variety–as long as there are not too many of them. I worked constantly to show how misguided this thinking is, on several levels, once even threatening to do a whole concert in minor keys and slow major-key pieces (after all, some of the “saddest” music is in major keys). Happily, John Dowland (and many others of his era and persuasion) knew the truth about “melancholy” music (whatever its key or tempo), and its special power to move the human mind and spirit like no other.

Here we have some of the finest examples of what Dowland described as “showers of Harmonie”–presented in perhaps the optimal medium for such things: a viol consort, with lute, and an occasional human voice. In the dedication to his Lachrimae Pavans Dowland reminded that “no doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weepes” and in that collection, as well as throughout his popular collections of songs (some of which are included here, along with a few by other contemporaries), he gave his listeners excellent opportunity to experience–and every reason to believe–that observation. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as the reedy, warm, eminently congenial sound of five viols playing music expertly designed to exploit the timbre and expressive character of these instruments. If you’re new to this, start with track 3, Lacrimae Antiquae Novae, perhaps the most immediately engaging, harmonically and melodically.

The songs, by Dowland and others, are sung by one of the original stars of the early music revival in Britain in the 1980s. Soprano Emma Kirkby’s voice has darkened and mellowed somewhat, retaining its tonal beauty and characteristic clarity. She does now exhibit some little vocal affectations–oddly pushing into a note here and there that doesn’t require it, or choking off instead of rounding a phrase ending. And, if you want to get picky, there are times when pitch is just a bit under. But Kirkby’s years of experience, interpretive instincts, and stylistic expertise in repertoire such as this, serves her and the music well, striking just the right tone and mood for these songs.

Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavans have, for obvious reasons, been recorded many times, yet nowhere better, or more harmoniously, than here, and John Akers’ 10-course lute is smartly played and artfully balanced with the viols. Dowland’s dedication ends with an equally important reminder to his dedicatee, Queen Anne of England, in 1603, that tears may also not always be shed “in sorrowe, but sometimes in joy and gladnesse.” After listening to this fine program, see if you don’t agree.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: A Pleasing Melancholy--John Dowland's Lachrimae Pavans And Sundry Sorrowful Songs

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