Journey to the New World

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Dowland,Duarte,Johnson,Niles & Traditional,O’Connor,York
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Renaissance lute pieces, plus works by Dowland, Johnson, York, Duarte, O’Connor, Niles & Traditional
PERFORMER: Sharon Isbin (guitar); with Joan Baez (vocals)
CATALOGUE NO: 88697 45456 2

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The subtitle of this album is ‘a voyage in song from the British Isles to the New World’, and the material is drawn primarily from the folk/roots repertoire, a category that might be stretched to include ‘Drewries’ Accordes’ and ‘Le Rossignol’, if only because they are anonymous, and ‘Greensleeves’, which has acquired a significant position in the English musical tradition. 

This is a journey in time as well as from continent to continent, beginning with the Renaissance lute works and coming up to Mark O’Connor’s violin suite Strings & Threads: this version for guitar and violin dates from 2006, though the tunes used are, of course, of venerable if unknown vintage. For songs to survive for so long they must have certain qualities, but I confess that few here move or excite me.

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And there’s the rub: whilst the performances are technically excellent (Isbin is a superb player with impeccable tone, phrasing, articulation and attack) the music rarely rises above the toe-tappingly pleasant. Many folk tunes are beautiful, and can be transformed into something transcendent, as proved by Britten, Golijov, Berio, Vaughan Williams and Holst (to list just some of the best) but, notwithstanding Baez’s celestial voice on two tracks, these compositions and arrangements remain earth-bound. Barry Witherden