Vancouver Early Music Festival
the Labyrinth: In Search of John Dowland
Date and Venue 2 August 2013, 8pm | Roy Barnett Hall, UBCReviewer Elizabeth Paterson
For the chattering classes of Merrie England, being melancholy was the very button of fashion. Robert Burton analyzed it in nearly 1000 pages; Shakespeare raised it to an art in Hamlet. John Dowland cultivated it both in his art and his persona. He was famous for being sad, so much so that some think he is lampooned as the ‘melancholy’ Jacques in As You Like It. There is no doubt that when he chose poems to set to music he chose more gloomy than cheerful ones and that his art took them to profound levels.
Friday’s concert opened with two of the most exquisite songs, Me, me and none but me, sung and played by all the members of Les Voix Baroques, followed by Go crystall teares, the first verse a solo by Colin Balzer in an acute, crystalline reading with a dying fall worthy of any lovesick Orsino.
Grief was momentarily interrupted by a pair of lute solos cheerfully played by Sylvain Bergeron. Sorrow stay returned to the mournful theme. Sung by Robert Macdonald (bass) and Laura Pudwell (contralto) the downward falling notes were emphasized by the lower voices, deepening the sense of the words towards a place of intimate desolation.
The programme continued varying gloomy settings with happier songs, and mixing and matching the number of singers and instrumentalists, following Dowland’s practice of writing part-songs that could be performed in many different combinations. The styles of singing too were varied, the more operatic voices being less to my taste, but Sting's style was nowhere in evidence.
Lucas Harris (lutenist and guest music director) made a point of choosing from the less familiar of Dowland’s works and it was a revelation to hear them. The Dialogue: Humor say what makst thou here? for two voices (Shannon Mercer, soprano and Sumner Thompson, baritone) with competing views of what’s funny showed Dowland unexpectedly as comic dramatist. His religious songs are seldom heard and are full of poignancy. A trilogy of three short songs meditates on enduring suffering through Biblical characters. Sung “a cappella” by five of the group the words ‘patience’ and ‘pain’ haunted the ear. An arrangement of the canticle, The Lamentations of a Sinner, written for a public memorial service was less personal in affect.
Some well-known favourites could not be kept out of the programme. The Battle Galliard was played with wit and humour by duelling lutenists Sylvain Bergeron and Lucas Harris. Two others from the ‘most famous’ list made this concert profoundly memorable. The plangent In darknesse let mee dwell is considered a masterpiece of song-writing. Sumner Thompson, partnered by Sylvain Bergeron, Lucas Harris (lutes) and Margaret Little on base viol, explored its desolate, unsettled tone with emotional clarity. Piling sorrow on despair, the iconic Semper Dowland, semper Dolens followed, given a reading by Lucas Harris that was unhurried, opaque and unsettling.
Les Voix Baroques sent the audience home with an invocation, Come heavy sleepe. Despite its melancholy tenor, Dowland’s music is surprisingly uplifting in its beauty. This was a rare chance to hear a rare composer performed uncommonly well.
© 2013 Elizabeth Paterson