Musicians as diverse as Elvis Costello, Percy Grainger, Peter Pears and Sting have been drawn to Dowland’s lute songs, and the composer’s own adaptable approach encouraged a variety of interpretations, ranging from a solo voice to a flexible vocal and instrumental ensemble. Surprisingly few performers today prefer the latter option, so it is refreshing to hear the more convivial approach in this new recording: in airs from The First Booke, a quartet of voices weaves a madrigalian web; elsewhere, two singers converse in lovelorn dialogues. The consort versions draw the ear from lyrics and melody to colour and sonority, aspects that Ruby Hugues, Reinoud van Mechelen, Paul Agnew and Alain Buet underscore in their keenly expressive accounts, highlighting dynamic contrasts, chromaticism and chiaroscuro effects.
The readings are compellingly articulated by lutenist and director Thomas Dunford, who also takes centre stage in a handful of Dowland’s solos. Dunford’s supple technique, combined with his passion for jazz, allows him to decorate and elaborate the written texts with improvisatory abandon, shedding new light on old favourites. He really plumbs the depths, too, of Dowland’s melancholy ‘blues’ style, proving himself to be an Eric Clapton of the lute.