Dowland – Lute Music Vol. 4

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COMPOSERS: Dowland
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Lute Music No. 4: Loth to depart; Walsingham; Galliard on Walsingham; Go from my window; Queen Elizabeth, her Galliard etc
PERFORMER: Nigel North (lute)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570284

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For one contemporary, Dowland’s ‘heavenly touch could ravish human sense’. As Nigel North reaches ‘journey’s end’ on his Dowland pilgrimage, it’s impossible not to salute another ‘heavenly touch’ with an infallible hotline to the art of ravishing 21st-century ‘human senses’.

Naxos has entitled the concluding volume ‘The Queen’s Galliard’ – after two galliards dedicated to Elizabeth, but the title tells only half the story since North’s leave-taking musters quite a song and dance. The galliard was ever a Dowland favourite, and over half the tracks trip to a vivacious triple-time beat.

Yet Dowland was also the pre-eminent English song composer of his day, and North has included versions of such Elizabethan ‘pops’ as ‘Come again, sweet love’, as well as all eight of the broadside ballad arrangements.

Indeed, Vol. 4 is as deftly programmed as its predecessors, finding yet another self-contained narrative on which to hang a distinctive facet of Dowland’s creative personality (the gossipy backstory explored in North’s engaging liner notes).

Of the ‘complete Dowland’ recordings North’s is easily the most imaginatively assembled, Vol. 1 offsetting the fertile imaginings of the seven Fantasies with theatre music and amiable pen portraits, Vol. 2 embracing the ‘dolorous’ Dowland, and Vol. 3 fashioning an ingenious dance card, adding almans to the trusted twosome of pavan and galliard.

But what constitutes a ‘complete’ Dowland? Especially when the man was a serial reviser who left some works in anything up to a dozen or so versions? Paul O’Dette’s compelling set from the mid 1990s stretched to five discs, mopping up works of suspect attribution.

Nigel North only records the pieces he feels to be of unshakeable pedigree – though he makes his own version of ‘Come again’ – and of ‘Awake sweet love’ whose other arrangement, perhaps by Francis Cutting, sounds positively pallid alongside North’s infinitely richer, more ambitious take on the song.

North has bided his time before setting down his thoughts on the ‘full Dowland’, but the wait has been worth it for the sheer maturity and rounded wisdom of the result. His insights are sovereign, the beguiling spontaneity paradoxically underpinned by seasoned scholarship, and he uses subtly shifting colour like an actor might deploy a veiled smile here, a twinkle of the eye there, to underline (or subvert!) the sense of what is being ‘said’.

The variations on ‘Loth to depart’ are teased out with a supple plenitude going straight to the heart of Dowland’s sumptuous melancholy, while no two galliards ever sound alike (North one minute full of regal insouciance, the next sonorous and declamatory).

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And by ending with an almost exuberantly ‘demob-happy’ account of King of Denmark’s Galliard, North straddles early and late Dowland at a single jubilant stroke. Set your compass to ‘magnetic North’ and delight in Dowland anew. Paul Riley