A near capacity audience gathered at the Wigmore Hall last week to celebrate another English musical anniversary – not the birth of Benjamin Britten one hundred years ago, but that of lutenist and composer John Dowland, some 350 years earlier. The American lutenist Paul O’Dette has made a particular study of Dowland’s work and in this dedicated recital played examples of the full range of Dowland’s instrumental output, including fancies, galliards, a pavan and even a jig.  Dowland’s well-known melancholic compositions were represented also by his Semper Dowland, semper dolens and a doleful Forlorne Hope Fancy.

Paul O'Dette at Boston Early Music Festival © Kathy Wittman
Paul O'Dette at Boston Early Music Festival
© Kathy Wittman

Apparently a somewhat prickly character, when he failed to secure an appointment as Queen Elizabeth’s lutenist, Dowland travelled through much of northern Europe in search of employment, and 1598 found him in the service of King Christian IV of Denmark.  It is said that the galliard, whose full title is The Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth, King of Denmark, His Galliard was Dowland’s “interview” piece – this beautiful, structured, martial-like piece got him the extremely well-paid job and was delivered in a suitably martial tone by O’Dette, making a notable contrast to the delightful froth of My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe. Together they also reinforced the point that although Dowland tends to be associated chiefly with melancholy, an extensive programme of his work such as this has the space to show the lightness, intricacy and inventiveness of his many lighter-toned works.

Paul O’Dette certainly cannot be accused of getting the trickiest pieces out of the way in the first half, both A Coye Joye and the not dissimilar Mrs Vaux’s Jigge being full of intricate, fast, fingerwork and the lively Mistris Winter’s Jump ending on the sudden jump of the title.  But pleasing and technically impressive as it was, the recital only really came to life with the last set, when O’Dette seemed to engage with the music on a much deeper level.  Dowland’s most famous work, Lachrimae, was delicate and expressive, with ever increasing levels of complexity in the ornamentation but never obscuring the flow and languor of the main line. It was followed by an unusually jaunty Frogg Galliard (the instrumental version of the oft sung “Now o now I needs must part”), and he rounded off the evening where he started, with a Fantasie.

A real treat, then, to have an entire concert devoted to this most famous of lutenists, played by one of today's foremost practitioners, repaying with interest the quiet, close attention of an appreciative audience.