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Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, April 2011

This is not the first disc to be devoted to the music of Robert Johnson often described as Shakespeare’s Lutenist.

Johnson worked for Shakespeare’s company, ‘The King’s Men’ at The Globe probably from c.1605 when he would have been in his early twenties. Later he worked at Blackfriars and after the great poet’s death composed for Webster, Ben Jonson and others. For them he produced incidental music and songs for masques. It’s very difficult to know which of these pieces Shakespeare actually heard. The Witches Dance might have been for a Macbeth performance but more likely for a post-Shakespeare play; Nigel North, in his very interesting booklet notes, suggests Ben Jonson’s ‘The Masque of Queens’. But for the great man’s last plays, the Romances like ‘The Winter’s Tale’, much music was needed and Robert Johnson would have been much in demand. Johnson was no hack arranger of fill-ins. He could often, especially in his songs and here in the Pavans and the Fantasie, be inspired.

…I tried to make a case for Robert Johnson being part of an extraordinary dynasty of musicians going back to another Robert Johnson from Scotland (c.1500–1560). The latter came to London and his sons and grandsons continued the family tradition. All of them were connected with the highest Royal Patronage.

Johnson’s 24 surviving lute works are all here. These include the very fine Fantasie (his only example), which Julian Bream on his 1962 RCA LP ‘The Golden Age of English Lute Music’ attributed to John Johnson, Robert’s father. Its style however may well be more Elizabethan than Jacobean. Other, more serious pieces include the Four Pavans. Nigel North has rather freely reconstructed the Fourth, a very melancholic piece, from the keyboard original. The latter was set by Giles Farnaby and can be found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. North has recently recorded all of Dowland’s Lute Music and superb CDs they are too. It’s quite clear that learning Dowland has helped in an understanding of Johnson and indeed that Johnson must have known Dowland’s Pavans and been inspired by them himself.

The disc contains several short and slightly frivolous dances. Johnson was keen on the Almain and ten of them are recorded here. The first track begins with The Prince’s Almain—the young and ill-fated prince Henry Prince of Wales—probably the composer’s best known work. It’s in a sort of bright D minor. Nigel North gives it a more delicate performance here. There are other dances like the Satyre’s Dance and the Fairies’ Dance, and a piece called The Noble Man. Each of these is from a masque, Ben Jonson’s ‘Oberon’ for example and George Chapman’s ‘Masque of the Middle Temple’, all from the period 1611–14.

Nigel North plays a seven-course lute for the earliest pieces but later Johnson wrote for the nine or ten-course instrument. The one North uses was made in 2005 but based on a Hans Frei original by Lars Jönsson. No matter which instrument he uses, North can be relied upon to give the listener a blissful and lyrical experience capturing the differing moods of piece with character and élan.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, March 2011

Fresh from his multi-volume exploration of Dowland’s lute works, Nigel North now turns his attention to one of Dowland’s younger contemporaries, Robert Johnson. Johnson was taken under the care of Sir George Carey, later to become Lord Chamberlain to Elizabeth I. Carey—later Lord Hudson—was also patron of the acting company called The Lord Chamberlaine’s—later The King’s—Men, which numbered Shakespeare among its members. Indeed Johnson was to write music for plays by him, as well as plays by Beaumont and Fletcher, and John Webster. He was also active in court masques, working alongside such as Ben Jonson and Thomas Campion. For these he would write dance music and play the lute in the accompanying band. There are examples of his work in this sphere in this disc; for Ben Jonson and also for George Chapman’s ‘Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn’, from which derives The Noble Man.

Still, his surviving music is small in number. Some 24 pieces are left to us, the earliest, Dowland-influenced, for the 7-course lute. Later he wrote for the nine- or ten-course lute and North duly plays a ten-course instrument after Hans Frei, made by Lars Jönsson—there’s serendipity for you—made in 2005, pitched at A=392.

North plays the music with accustomed eloquence. He responds to its obvious lyric appeal with a wide range of tone colours and technical precision, bringing it strongly to life. The Prince’s Almain, Masque and Coranto is warmly textured, but not pressed too hard, whilst the incipient gravity of the first Pavan is conveyed through its expressive weight. Moving with grace, the Galliard: My Lady Mildmay’s Delight is a most attractive composition. North admits to having ‘improved’ the divisions in the second Pavan, feeling the original to have been ‘not good enough to have been Johnson’s’: scholars, please debate. It’s also the longest work in this selection. He embellishes the repeats in the third Pavan because the surviving copy has no divisions.

North’s great clarity of articulation is perhaps at its most acute in his playing of The Noble Man and Johnson is at his most explicitly lyric, and thus Johnsonian, in The Fairies’ Dance, a marvellous, ballad-like piece, explicitly vocalised and carried off with great assurance. North’s lower strings ring out with rounded and doleful tone in the Fantasie in which colour is varied with great skill. The fourth Pavan—the Pavans are a problematic area of Johnson’s compositions—is not set in an original version but only in a keyboard arrangement by Giles Farnaby. North has used the Farnaby to attempt to re-establish the lute original, and it certainly sounds very plausible in his hands. The Satyre’s Dance is another instance of North’s reconstructive art, as the original lute version has again not survived.

If your interest in lute music extends to a theatrical, Shakespearean or other context, then you will greatly enjoy North’s well recorded and textually and digitally elevated performances. He brings things, as ever, vividly to life.

William Yeoman
Gramophone, March 2011

Lutenist Nigel North again demonstrates the range and persuasiveness of his art.

Robert Johnson (c1583–1633) was a lutenist at the court of James I who wrote songs and dances for the plays of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Webster, as well as for the masques of Ben Jonson. Johnson…made the simple dance form a vehicle for the loftiest expression—notably the pavane. North in his interpretations is not embarrassed to do likewise…presents in a musically satisfying order pavans, galliards, almains and dances specifically for the theatre. North plays a 10-course lute by Lars Jönsson (2005)…As always, North’s playing is a wonder, an easy, natural musicality and an impeccable technique complemented by a real ear for colour and nuance of expression. Best of all, there’s an intensity of emotion here that equals Mathew Wadsworth’s; the pavans and allemandes are grave and searching…Superb.

Ardella Crawford
American Record Guide, March 2011

This program is a nice change…it is good when someone departs from the beaten track and presents a lesser known composer’s work. This program is beautifully rendered.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, March 2011

Robert Johnson (c.1583–1633) is best remembered for his many years in the service of George Carey, Lord Hunsdon. After Carey became Lord Chamberlain and patronized the theatrical company known as The Lord Chamberlaine’s Men (later The King’s Men), Johnson was engaged to write the musical accompaniment for many of their new plays. This brought him into the mainstream of British cultural history, since theatrical companies of the day employed dramatists as well as actors and stagehands—with much movement among all three roles—and this particular company included on its roster Shakespeare, Webster, and the team of Beaumont and Fletcher. If you see a performance of The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, or The Duchess of Malfi that restores the original music, you’re listening to airs composed by Johnson.

Less theatrically inclined listeners will know him through a series of keyboard transcriptions made of his lute music, for Johnson became a highly regarded lutenist at the court of James I. Though only two dozen or so (a few works are disputed) lute pieces survive, they do so in many manuscripts and publications of the day, both in their original instrumentation and in keyboard versions. The latter show up regularly today in concerts and on albums, so that while a fancier of Elizabethan keyboard music may never have encountered Johnson’s name before, he or she will almost certainly have heard The Prince’s Almain, Lady Strange’s Almain, and My Lady Mildmay’s Delight.

Nigel North’s collection includes virtually all of the original surviving lute selections, plus his own transcriptions of two pieces (the Pavan No. 4 and The Satyre’s Dance, from Ben Jonson’s masque Oberon) whose lute versions have not survived. The pieces are for the most part written for the rich, nine-course version of the instrument. With one exception, their origins lie in popular dance forms of the day, including the galliard, pavane, allemande, and courante. They are invariably direct in expression and deceptively simple in form, moving from deeply expressive themes with chordal accompaniments, such as the Pavan No. 1, to an almost constantly active and effective use of imitative counterpoint in the Three Almains. A gift for pleasing, fresh melody—a blessing all English composers of the period seem to have possessed, regardless of their music’s weight, from William Mundy to William Byrd—was his, in full measure. If this was the style of things he performed regularly as royal lutenist to James I, it’s easy to understand why his merits were so appreciated at court over three decades.

North’s performances are, as ever, technically refined. He is stylistically accurate, employing appropriate ornamentation lightly, with an eye to the original tablature, but not following sources (these never derive directly from Johnson, in any case) slavishly. Dance rhythms aren’t sacrificed to personal whim, but the slower pieces—the pavanes, the fantasie—have a welcome breadth and flexibility. The sound is close, just resonant enough to give body to the instrument without clouding textures.

In short, this is an album of delightful occasional music, performed with taste and refinement.

George Pratt
BBC Music Magazine, February 2011

Instrumental Choice

As often with plucked instruments, close recording picks up the rasp of calloused fingertips on strings – the performer’s perspective, but quite apt for such intimate music, so superbly played., December 2010

A solo performance with virtuosity of a different sort is Nigel North’s recording of music by Robert Johnson (c. 1583–1633), a Shakespeare contemporary who actually wrote songs and incidental music for the Bard’s plays. Far less known than John Dowland, of whose works North is a champion, Johnson turns out to have had great skill both in dance rhythms and in lyrical expression, creating works in soon-to-be-obsolete forms that look ahead to the Baroque dance suites that were yet to come. North, a largely self-taught lutenist, plays all these works (a number of which he himself reconstructed) with considerable flair and a thorough understanding of performance practices of the 17th century.

James Manheim, December 2010

Composer Robert Johnson was part of the circle of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the beginning of the 17th century. Little of his music has survived; this release by British-American lutenist Nigel North includes most of what did. Johnson’s music was probably used in Shakespeare’s plays, and this album may be of interest to theatrical producers for that reason. It consists of dances: pavanes, galliards, almains (allemands), and titled pieces like The Witches’ Dance (track 7), mostly of the sort that Dowland, another contemporary, also composed. But the effect of Johnson’s music is different; it’s simpler, more transparent, and much less given to melancholy than Dowland’s. Sample the economical elegance of The Fairies’ Dance (track 10) for a taste. The virtuosity lies mostly in the ornaments applied rather than in the notated music, but the four numbered pavanes and a few other pieces have “divisions” or variations attached. North informs the buyer in his notes (in English only) that Pavan No. 2 “has divisions which I felt were not good enough to be Johnson’s, so I preferred to add my own.” This is questionable policy with little-known music, but in general North’s performances are graceful, confident, lyrical, and clean. The same can’t be said for the sound, which places the lute in an Ontario church (is that a place a lute feels at home?) where the sound is too live and picks up extraneous instrument noise a 17th century audience would never have heard. Still, this release will find an audience among Renaissance lute fans and those interested in Shakespeare and his era.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

One if life’s great musical pleasures is listening to Nigel North’s lute playing, here performing music by Robert Johnson on a 10 course lute made in the style of the period. Johnson was born around 1583, his father, who was to die when Robert was eleven, having served as lutenist to Elizabeth I, The young Robert was then brought up by a wealthy family who also circulated in court circles, his destiny was to be the great and last flowering of the golden age of lutenists. He too moved in royal circles as a court musician, the young Prince Henry being his pupil. Before Henry’s untimely death Robert had composed one of his most outstanding scores, The Prince’s Almain, the opening track on this new album. We have little knowledge as to the origins of the twenty-four lute pieces that have survived. They are all in dance form and would have probably served as music for court entertainment, though some most certainly were written for Masques. Few were of significant length, some lasting little more than one minute. Seventeen are included here, and it is the four Pavans that offer the most extended scores. They share the character of being instantly pleasurable, my own favourites being The Witches Dance (track 7) and a rather heavyweight Fairies’ Dance (track 10). Certainly in substance the outstanding score comes in the Dances for the Prince’s Masque (track 15). The London-born Nigel North is largely a self-taught lutenist, and has set the standard to which others aspire. His articulation is perfect and his style seemingly capturing the mood of the time. We have come to expect the most revealing and beautiful sound from Naxos’s Canadian team.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, June 2010

Naxos already have one CD of the lute music of Robert Johnson[’s father John] (Christopher Wilson and Shirley Rumsey, 8.550776). Now, after a gap of some seven years, they add a second volume, this time with Nigel North, who has recorded Dowland’s complete lute music…Johnson’s music may not be quite as accomplished or as well known as Dowland’s, but it is well worth hearing, and there can be no better advocate than Nigel North, whose Dowland has won many plaudits, my own small contribution among them. Please refer to the review of the complete 4-CD set, 8.504016, here… North’s playing is every bit as fine here as on those Dowland recordings…

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