Amidst the furore of celebrations for the anniversaries of Verdi and Wagner, the final Chamber Prom of this season gave pause to savour the music of the great English Renaissance lutenist, singer and composer John Dowland, whose 450th birthday also falls this year. A musical celebrity, of a sort, in his day, Dowland gained popularity and status in the courts of Europe, including the Royal Court in Denmark (where he also acted as a spy), before securing a position as lutenist in the English court of James I in 1612. Best known for his songs, his music has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years, attracting the attention of such diverse figures as Sting and Elvis Costello.

Ian Bostridge © David Thompson
Ian Bostridge
© David Thompson

Dowland’s music epitomizes the spirit of melancholy, fashionable in the Elizabethan period, and his most famous work is the Lacrimae, a set of seven pavanes for viols and lute, each drawn from the song Flow, My Tears.

For this concert, acclaimed tenor Ian Bostridge was joined by accomplished lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the renowned viol consort Fretwork. Cadogan Hall is perhaps not the best venue to enjoy the intimate simplicity of Dowland’s music, but, seated in a semicircle, the musicians created an atmosphere of concentrated closeness, which held the audience’s attention for an hour and more, and allowed the seductive melancholy of Dowland’s music to shine through. A selection of lachrimaes (“tears”), love songs, Pavanes and Galliards was performed with delicate poetry and eloquent expression, painting a musical portrait of Elizabethan England.

The sublime voice of Bostridge seems made for Dowland’s bittersweet laments. It was particularly arresting in the more introspective songs, such as Flow, My Tears, and the bleak In Darkness Let Me Dwell, where Bostridge’s acute attention to the written text allowed for some interesting and evocative effects, such as “bending” of notes and sorrow-laden dying falls to further highlight the meaning and emotion of the words. In Come again, sweet love doth now invite, the text expressing the despair of the rejected lover, the words “to die” were given extra emphasis, coming at the end of a rising figure which signals another meaning – the ecstasy of sexual fulfillment. Occasionally, in the livelier songs some of the words were lost in their delivery, but throughout Bostridge gave a heartfelt and emotional performance.

The singing was complemented by the silky warmth of Fretwork’s viols, five in all, and the delicate strains of Elizabeth Kenny’s lute, which came to the fore most arrestingly in the mournful chromatic fantasia Farewell Fancy.

The first encore provided a delightful mirroring across 400 years: a new arrangement by Elizabeth Kenny of the Earl of Essex’s “Brambleberry Song” from Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana.

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