There comes a stage in every countertenor’s career when he feels himself ready to tackle the exposed repertoire of John Dowland, and hence the need to find himself a talented lutenist – think Andreas Scholl and Karl-Ernst Schröder, or Michael Chance and Nigel North. Iestyn Davies appears to have struck gold at first shot and has formed what is already proving to be a very fruitful partnership with the young lutenist, Thomas Dunford. Together, their late night concert “The art of melancholy” was a highlight of the fourth Lewes Chamber Music Festival.

Iestyn Davies © Marco Borggreve
Iestyn Davies
© Marco Borggreve

The melancholy took the form of an evening devoted primarily to John Dowland, a man disappointed in love and ambition though not in financial remuneration, having held an extremely lucrative post in the court of King Christian IV of Denmark. It was a gradual lead-in to the sorrow, however, opening with Thomas Campion’s amusing I care not for these ladies and Never weather-beaten saile, a song so simple that it needs an extremely good singer to do it justice. Davies, returning to the concert hall after a two month medical lay-off, was in particularly fine form, with his clear diction, controlled even tone and clarity of expression being marshalled to deliver a refined and evocative performance of some of Dowland’s best known songs and, completely new to me, three rather dispiriting brief songs by one of Dowland’s contemporaries, John Danyel.

Just one of the aspects revealing Dowland’s genius is the structural integrity of his compositions, so they can be transposed for different voices or played, for example, with a variety of viols or with a solo lute or any combination in between, and all versions sound just right. Come again, sweet love doth now invite illustrated this point; taken fairly briskly, Davies sang the vocal part with a cool, clean and plaintive tone, but with a rich, almost independent lute accompaniment. The juxtaposition of straightforward vocal line with the complex instrumental undercurrent lent an unusual tension between the two elements which was hugely invigorating, serving to make the melancholy just bearable whilst at the same time preventing any sweetness from becoming too cloying.

Despite the high financial value the King of Denmark put on Dowland, Davies referred to some evidence that Dowland played from the cellars of the castle, with the King lifting a hatch in the floor when he wished to hear the sound. Whether apocryphal or not, it was sufficient excuse to switch off the lights for In darkness let me dwell and the last, lingering note left suspended in the darkness was a sombre note to reinforce the effect.

Interspersed through the concert was a series of lute (theorbo) solos including the King of Denmark’s Galliard; it came over as quite a favourite of Dunford’s and he played it with speed and flair, with an assurance that belies his years.  After the chromatically-tricky Danyel pieces, Dunford had moved aside his music stand and played most of the remaining pieces from memory. Trained first in Paris and then at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, he plays with a refreshing freedom and sense of promise to display the lute for the versatile instrument it is.

The main programme concluded with a combination of Dowland’s glorious vocal Now o now I needs must part and the instrumental version known as the Frogg Galliard, with the song verses alternating with the solo theorbo. Voice and lute were ideally matched and it was an utterly charming rendition, full of lightness and space. Approaching midnight, Iestyn Davies was clearly relishing being back in the saddle and he could not resist sharing with us that the BBC Music magazine had recently described Dunford as the “Eric Clapton of the lute”. It was imperative, therefore, that he should sing Tears in heaven to mark the tribute – it was anything but a melancholic conclusion to the evening, and he may have meant it as a parody, but it was still just beautiful.