This new release from Hyperion is the perfect antidote for the serious listener turned off by Sting's crossover expedition into the Dowland lute songs. What was charitably described here as "not an ideal version of Dowland's music" some decried as mass audience pablum, and with some reason. That type of listener may want to consider this CD as a follow-up gift for that classical-shy someone who enjoyed Sting's Labyrinth, an enticement along the path to the dark side. Considering my recent praise of Mark Padmore's new Handel, it is no surprise that his performance of this baker's dozen of delectable lute songs should get a recommendation. Not least because it presents not only the lachrymose Dowland but the randy, witty Dowland ("Her eye commands, her heart saith No. / No, no, no, and only no! / One No another still doth follow").
Dowland, Lute Songs / Britten, Nocturnal after John Dowland, Mark Padmore, Elizabeth Kenny, Craig Ogden (released January 8, 2008)
Here are all the things that, for better or worse, were missing from Sting's version: exquisite diction, studied and pure pronunciation, warm and burnished vocal tone, endless breath support. The incredibly long note at the end of Sorrow, stay! will take your breath away, although Padmore sounds like he had some left over. Elizabeth Kenny, a distinguished lutenist who is heard frequently with Les Arts Florissants and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, is a sensitive partner, allowing Padmore to anchor the ends of phrases, add rhythmic touches to important words, and treat repeated phrases with an eye toward variation. She also contributes three solo pieces, including one of the fantasias from Dowland's collection of études.
The warm sound, captured in London's All Saints Church (East Finchley), renders the fragility of the genre, music that is meant to be heard from as close as possible, without introducing too much distracting detail. As a companion piece, guitarist Chris Ogden also performs Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal after John Dowland, op. 70, composed for Julian Bream to play at the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival. It is a marvel to hear the opening measures of this work directly after the Dowland song that inspired it, Come, heavy Sleep. The bitonal -- really pretonal -- harmonic mixture of the song is distorted and exploded by Britten in the first movement and throughout the series of contrasting affects, leading to a hazy restatement of Dowland's gorgeous original at the end.