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John Downland
BBC Music Magazine, October 2012

Supple, sensitive and warmly recorded, North’s artful set is a steal at budget price. © 2013 BBC Music Magazine

Gavin Dixon
MusicWeb International, January 2010

The Naxos John Dowland Complete Lute Music set is the culmination of a recording project by the lutenist Nigel North. The four discs have already appeared individually but are now available, each in its original packaging but grouped together in a card slip-case. Each disc is structured as a recital programme and each stands up well as an individual contribution to the composer’s discography. Together, they offer the advantage of a comprehensive survey and also have sufficient diversity and musical interest that on completing one, the listener’s natural inclination is to turn to the slip-case to find the next instalment.

One surprise for me of this total immersion approach was discovering how much up-beat music Dowland wrote. His pavans and other melancholic numbers richly deserve their popularity, but marches, jigs and galliards make up a similar proportion of his work. These are equally satisfying, the composer’s deep humanity coming through without any need for melancholic pathos. Nigel North cleverly constructs his programmes around the themes and moods of the music, while always maintaining a recitalist’s sense of diversity. So, for example, volume 2 is entitled ‘Dowland’s Tears’, and includes most of his well-known melancholic numbers, concluding with the famous Semper Dowland Semper Dolens. But the pavans, funerals and adieus are interspersed with a handful of galliards, each of which balances the mournful tone without breaking the mood.

North performs with impressive clarity, the surety and adroitness of his tone constant across the four discs. An enviable combination of rigour and suppleness characterises his playing. He arpeggiates with evenness and regularity, never tempted to manipulate the chords for melodic gain. His rendition of Semper Dowland Semper Dolens is a case in point, evenly strummed throughout, allowing the music’s simple melodic line to make its point without any extraneous decoration or rubato. On the other hand, his melodies and introductory figures often breathe with a sense of almost vocal lyricism. So, for example, Mrs Vaux’s Galliard, opens with a very gentle accelerando through the opening few chords, deftly approaching, and then immediately establishing, the tempo of the melody. A lively ornamentation is occasionally employed, as in The King of Denmark’s Galliard, which is spiced with lively, if disciplined, mordant figures. He is not afraid to explore extremes of tempo. His reading of Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliard, for example, is brisk, while Mr Dowland’s Midnight is slower than you will hear elsewhere. In both cases, the clarity of the tone and the lyricism of the melodic line are more than sufficient to secure the integrity and musicality of the result.

The performances were given on 8, 9 and 10 course instruments with pitches ranging from A=392hz to 440hz. Even at the lower end of this pitch spectrum, the sound is clear and bright, a testament perhaps to the luthier’s art. Most of the instruments were made in the last ten years. The recording venue was the church of St John Chrysostom, Newmarket, Ontario, and the generous acoustic makes for a particularly satisfying sound profile. A halo of resonance surrounds the lute but, more importantly, does not interfere with the clarity of the attack or the evenness of the decay.

Dowland’s lute music has made few appearances on CD in recent years, making this well played, well programmed and well recorded set all the more valuable. The high standard of the recorded sound suggests that modern technology may be of future benefit to lutenists, in that the notoriously soft tone of their instrument makes an ideal subject for sound recording when reproduced with this level of care. The sound of the player’s fingers moving along the neck can often be heard. For those put off by such things, I would stress that it is usually only just above the level of audibility. For me, the sound only adds to the verisimilitude and intimacy of the listening experience. Experienced Dowland collectors are going to want to seek this recording out, although most will have probably already bought the discs individually. Newcomers to the composer’s work could find no better place to start than with Nigel North’s recordings, and they will have the added advantage of being able to listen to over four hours of Dowland’s elegant, courtly strains without any fear of having the experience ruined by Sting wailing away over the top.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, December 2009

Oh, what joy this wonderful artist brings to my ears! This 4-CD set comprising all of Dowland’s works for lute must rank as the definitive version lovers of this music would want to own. Mr. North plays several instruments, and the anthology represents recordings made over a span of several years, and utilising different instruments. But you’d never know it, so seamlessly does the music flow. His phrasing and ornamentation are models of virtuosic good taste, and the audio quality, even if somewhat larger-than-life, is delightful. As a bonus—as though such was needed—one is treated to Mr North’s own arrangements of several favourite pieces. In a word: a gem!

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, November 2009

Oh, what joy this wonderful artist brings to my ears! This 4-CD set comprising all of Dowland’s works for lute must rank as the definitive version lovers of this music would want to own. Mr. North plays several instruments, and the anthology represents recordings made over a span of several years, and utilising different instruments. But you’d never know it, so seamlessly does the music flow. His phrasing and ornamentation are models of virtuosic good taste, and the audio quality, even if somewhat larger-than-life, is delightful. As a bonus—as though such was needed—one is treated to Mr North’s own arrangements of several favourite pieces. In a word: a gem!

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, November 2009

Naxos has collected its four volume traversal of the lute music into a handy slipcase. All the volumes are available singly, but you can also buy the four together as a quartet of excellence, presided over by Nigel North, the acknowledged hero of the hour. What follows is a reprise of two volumes already reviewed—volumes 1 and 3—and a look at volumes 2 and 4.

Nigel North and Naxos here embark on the first volume of a complete (four CD) set of the complete Dowland lute works. We have had individual contributions from Bream but more recently the Consort of Musicke and, notably, Paul O’Dette have made significant contributions to the contemporary discography. It would not be quite true to say however that we are spoiled for choice, especially at budget price. And that’s where North comes in. Many years ago he recorded some lute solos with the Deller Consort—what North would doubtless refer to as his Ancient History period—but of more substantial impact was his 1980 LP traversal of the complete solo works, a 5 LP box set with colleagues Bailes, Lindberg, Rooley and Wilson on Decca L’Oiseau—Lyre DSLO D187D5, a set I never heard and which has never been transferred to CD.

Here for Naxos he plays two lutes, an eight and a nine course, both crafted by the Bristol-based maker Paul Thomson in the 1990s, one at A440, the other A392—Paul O’Dette also plays a Thomson eight course by the way. With them North presents, fortunately for us in the first volume, all seven Fantasies and a bewitching array of Jigs and dances. Therefore he programmes a recital with the spine of the Fantasies, around which lighter material can prosper and flourish.

In the Marches and Jigs his articulation proves crisp and deft, colouristic and winning. He doesn’t over-press rhythms, as one can determine in Mrs White’s Thing which is taken at a tempo that allows for freedom of expression and clarity of articulation at all times. A Dream is a stately Pavane, with a noble tread and rather an extensive setting; interest is maintained throughout by virtue of colour and phrasal ingenuity. Of course there are light-hearted settings of which Mrs Winter’s Jump is a notable example and Mrs Vaux’s Jig proves equally sprightly and is projected with alacrity.

He holds back at the Canzona start of the First Fantasie, gradually increasing contrapuntal tension and subtly increasing the tempo—and in the Fifth he manages to convey flexibility and also, importantly, a spirit of improvisatory freedom. The Second Fantasie, maybe the most famous piece in this first disc, conveys its full measure of melancholy whilst North reserves an increase in vibrato usage for the Fourth, based on the cantus firmus Gloria tibi Trinitas.

Pausing briefly to compare North with Paul O’Dette one finds that the former prefers a more relaxed tempo and a less intense sense of expression. Mrs Winter’s Jump is very differently characterised by both men though the divergences are, if anything, even wider in Mrs White’s Thing. They offer complementary views of Dowland, the one teeming with incision, rhythmic alacrity and drama, but also with no little reflective power, the other, as represented by North, rather more reserved and stately, with an interior introspection that emerges even in some of the more extrovert passages. Farewell (Fantasie No.3) focuses their different emotive and rhythmic responses in an expansive setting which is fully a minute quicker in O’Dette’s hands. The recording in St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario is quite spacious but doesn’t at all dull the sound. It’s very pleasurable listening. An auspicious start.

Dowland’s Tears announces volume 2 and we can be sure that this will include some of his very greatest utterances. So it’s no surprise that we start with Lachrimae Pavan, in which the sustenance of legato is a minor miracle of expression of the melodic line. What one notices throughout the set as a whole, not simply this volume, is the clarity of North’s articulation. This emerges however with warmth and colouristic voicings—try The Earl of Essex, his Galliard as a specific example of a general quality. North has actually arranged one song—Dowland’s Tears (I saw my lady weep), the very title that gives its name to the volume. Here he locates the gravity and solemnity at its heart, in quite ravishing ways.  

Langton’s Galliard is fluid, fluent and uplifting. It’s also rhythmically buoyant, with North ensuring that the upper voicings are subtly inflected. Dowland’s Adieu is plangent and expressive and suitably doleful. Mignarda (Henry Noel’s Galliard) is once again beautifully voiced, and spun like silk,

Volume three of Nigel North’s Dowland lute series spins a delightful surprise. The three principal Elizabethan dances—Pavan, Galliard and Almain—are here arranged in suites. Whilst his 1604 Lachrimae contained all three dances this collection was written for viol consort and lute, not solo lute. Once again North is armed with his nine course 2005 lute, tuned to a’= 400. And, as before in this series, he proves a wonderfully astute and perceptive guide to the repertoire.

Beyond simply questions of shifting and digital command—these are prerequisites that needn’t concern us as North is so accomplished a player—lies the sheer tonal warmth of his playing. Solus cum sola may have the very occasionally audible squeak but it’s almost an invariable corollary and is greatly outweighted by the sheer burnished roundness of his tone in a reading that explores its melancholic introspection. Then too we find North enjoying, and making us enjoy, the sprighty and engaging dialogue of Sir John Smith, his Almain. It happens to be an ingenious variation—in effect—but it takes someone such as North to explore its fecundity and fluency of invention.

North has included some especially stately Pavanes here, none more so than The Lady Russell’s Pavan, P. 17, which forms the opening of the second “suite” he has so cannily constructed. To close the suite we have the songful vibrancy of the brief The Lady Laiton’s Almain. Additionally we find that North’s editorial work has borne fruit. He has edited Pavana Doulant to sit more comfortably in Dowland’s style by omitting divisions that seem to him to be by the German Johannes Mylius and by “prudently editing the three basic sections.” The result certainly sounds utterly authentic. The Almain P.51 is another problematic piece, which North speculates may be an arrangement of a consort piece—though not necessarily even by Dowland since it sits awkwardly. Some tweaking in respect of tonality ensures that we can hear it in better light.

The martial rhythms of The Battle Galliard resound splendidly and unproblematically—one pleasure of this recital is to hear the full range of sonorities North can evoke, as in the resounding lower strings of the previously cited Almain. Pavana Johan Douland is the single longest piece—eloquent indeed in this performance, indeed rivetting in its concentration and control.

The high standards set in this series continue into the final volume. The dextrous elasticity of North’s fingering is a given, I suppose, by now but there’s no harm in reminding oneself as to its assurance. I would suggest The Queen’s Galliard itself—the title track, as it were—as a central exemplar. North acutely judges the temperature of each piece, measures its formality or gallantry, and gives us, for example, Dowland’s First Galliard in which the warmth of the gallantry hardly needs underlining. The Frog Galliard will be better known perhaps as one of the loveliest of the First Booke of Songs—Now, oh now I needs must part—and this final disc, which celebrates the Songs and Dances of Dowland’s music, certainly ensures that the tonal beauties of North’s playing afford the song a worthy champion in our age. All eight of the Broadside Ballad settings are here and they’re often examples of Dowland’s complex working through of them—extended and wrought, and not at all trivialised; on the contrary they seem to have inspired to acute compositional flights.

North contributes two of his own versions of certain pieces—Come again, sweet love and Awake, sweet love. He employs extended divisions in both, extrapolating outwards, whereas the originals were simpler and sparer. By now you will have wearied of superlatives but I must not neglect to mention the upper and lower string dialogue in Go from my window, or the effortlessly lyrical exploration of Can she excuse? which is again from the Booke of Songs.

In terms of production values, recorded sound and most particularly the performances themselves, taken in their totality, this is the most outstanding collection of Dowland’s lute music before the public today.

Gapplegate Music, November 2009

John Dowland (1563–1626) was one of England’s few truly exceptional early composers (along with William Byrd and Thomas Tallis) but also one who stills speaks to us clearly and passionately today across the many centuries that separate us from him.

He is remembered primarily for his songs, which were touched by a poignant melancholy, and his music for solo lute, which entered the realm of pure invention. There were many composers through the history of the music who were not especially developed melodists. Telemann, Reger, at times Schumann, even Beethoven serve as examples. Then there were those that had brilliance in that sphere. Schubert for one, certainly, and also Dowland. Follow the melody lines in his lute music and you’ll hear a consistently high level of line construction. Unlike some, Dowland never sacrifices the main line to the various passage work interludes where it sounds as if the composer has become more concerned with an extra-melodic goal at a particular point in a composition. Of course Dowland does not have to grapple with sonata form as did later composers, but nevertheless there is in Dowland a originality of line that transcends period. Even when he writes in a theme and variations idiom, the variations retain a melodic brilliance that can be missing with some of the other masters of the music.

Naxos has just released a fabulous four-CD box set of Dowland’s lute music, with Nigel North playing an expressive yet period-sensitive set of renditions. I’ve heard much of these on other recordings but never in so comprehensive a collection. The performances rival anything I’ve heard and the sound is excellent.

This set is indispensable for those who wish to get an understanding of Dowland’s greatness, for those who wish to understand what accomplished lute playing of the period sounded like, and. . . EVERYBODY AND ANYBODY ELSE who loves good music.

The music takes advantage of the idiomatic qualities of the lute as constructed and tuned in Dowland’s era, and hence sounds completely natural to the ear. This of course is partially deceptive, since Mr North contributes an artistry and sensitivity to the music which gives these performances the edge. He brings out the nuances of the parts, phrasing with elegance and care so that the structure of the multi-part writing comes through with brilliance and clarity. I would warmly recommend this set without hesitation. In fact I just did!

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group