The 19 January concert for the Valletta International Baroque Festival comprised a programme of songs with lute by the English lutenist and composer John Dowland (1563–1626). The recital was given by Canadian tenor Justin Burwood, accompanied by Swedish lutenist Magnus Andersson.

© Mario Mintoff/VIBF
© Mario Mintoff/VIBF
The programme contained some of Dowland’s melancholy songs. As explained at the start of the programme, “melancholy” had a different meaning in Dowland’s time – it also signified joy. The works had been chosen to reflect music that “speaks directly to the soul”.

The venue for this recital was the recently restored church of St Catherine d’Italia, built in 1576 as the chapel of the Italian Knights of the Order of St John and attached to the Auberge d’Italie. This was a perfect venue for this intimate concert.

The programme commenced with Sweet, stay awhile, with its vocal line shaped by Dowland to match the expressive demands of the tenderly erotic text by the metaphysical poet John Donne.

The richness in the tone of Burwood’s voice suited this repertoire: strong, but displaying the intimacy and intenseness of the setting. There was a synergy between him and the competent accompaniment of Magnus Andersson.

Following the two songs Go crystal tears and Can she excuse my wrongs, there was short interval of solo lute music by Dowland: Lady Russell’s Pavan and Langton’s Galliard. The pavan is a dignified piece with elaborate repeats. The work was dedicated to Lady Elizabeth Russell, daughter to Sir Anthony Cooke, who married Sir Thomas Hoby, diplomat and translator. The galliard is a work of unusual form where the first section is repeated followed by the second section of which half is repeated again. It was dedicated to Sir John Langton.

The pieces were played beautifully and with an intimacy by Magnus Andersson on a wonderfully toned nine-course lute by Lars Jönsson.

The first of the next set of songs, I saw my lady weep, was A work of extreme beauty containing some long phrases which challenge the singers’ breath control – this was handled superbly by Burwood. After Lady, if you so spite me and O sweet woods, Burwood gave us a wonderful interpretation of In darkness let me dwell. This song gives us a feeling of deep and endless grief which takes melancholy to its furthest limits. Burwood’s rich voice conveyed the words and the sentiment of this beautiful song.

This was followed by another one of Dowland’s solo lute works, a Fantasia – one of four that Dowland wrote. The Farewell fantasia is a work based on a simple chromatic phrase and then developing into more complex, at times, virtuosic form. This piece was superbly played by Andersson.

The two songs Shall I strive with words to move and Weep you no more, sad fountains ended the recital. 

The recital was enthusiastically received by the audience, which packed out this small church. We were rewarded with Cruel tyran de mes désirs by Antoine Boësset, beautifully sung as an encore.