John Dowland (1563-1626) and other composers of the late English Renaissance are in the air (haha) at the moment. Not only have we reviewed solo albums by Mark Padmore and -- how could we forget? -- Sting, we have heard live concerts of this music by Ellen Hargis and Paul O'Dette, the Folger Consort, and Hopkinson Smith. Now Harmonia Mundi's favorite countertenor, Andreas Scholl, has gotten in on the act, after solo and duet Handel albums in the last couple years. The generous program highlights a set of Dowland songs, accompanied by combinations of lute and viols, surrounded by other contemporary songs and lute or viol consort pieces by John Ward, Robert Johnson, William Byrd, John Bennet, Patrick Mando, and Richard Mico. Scholl collaborates with a group of historically informed performance (HIP) specialists: the young lutenist Julian Behr (a student of Hopkinson Smith in Basel, among others) and Concerto di Viole, all of whom studied at Basel.
Crystal Tears, A. Scholl, Concerto di Viole, J. Behr
(released June 10, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901993
The sound is luscious and intimate, with a natural ease of push and pull among the performers, making it a worthy release. One thing that makes it not essential is that English is noticeably not Scholl's native language, and Mark Padmore's exquisite pronunciation was one of the strengths of his recording. The problem in Scholl's recording is so acute that it is often hard to understand what he is singing without reading the words. Even so, the sound is so ravishing in a song like Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow, that one can forgive the strange pronunciation of phrases like "the bog [bag] off [of] the bee." Even Sting's somewhat idiosyncratic pronunciation was better, although he came nowhere close to Scholl in milking all of the douceur from this exquisite little song. (Scholl's recently re-released disc of German cantatas would surely have the same kind of linguistic advantage, in German, although I have yet to hear it.)
In the album's oddest choice, Scholl first whistles the refrain of Bennet's Venus' Birds before singing it, even cheesily ornamenting the whistling a second time. It goes with the sort of breezy mode of performance -- some friends sitting around the score -- but the producer should have insisted on getting a recorder player. A DVD extra (not all that interesting but free) includes some footage of the recording process, along with Scholl speaking about his history with the music of Dowland. There is also a video of the recording of Venus' Birds, embedded below, where you can see Scholl singing and ... whistling.
Andreas Scholl, Venus' Birds (John Bennet)