We often think of John Dowland as the ultimate Elizabethan songwriter and lutenist, but the truth is he couldn’t get a gig in the Virgin Queen’s court. Instead he had to ply his art overseas where he was celebrated as the great composer and influencer he was.
It’s this interesting juxtaposition of English and continental European Renaissance genres which formed the backbone of Dame Emma Kirkby’s recital with the Swedish lutenist Jakob Lindberg in the final chamber music concert of the Utzon Series for the season.
It may have been a balmy sunny afternoon on the harbour outside the wall-to-wall window of the intimate room but inside it was positively Arctic, thanks to the fierce airconditioning which occasionally troubled the 68-year-old doyenne of early music. And Lindberg chose to drop one of his solos, explaining that his fingers were slightly swollen from the long flight and normally they would have an interval for this programme.
But these were minor hitches in what was a glorious trip through songs and instrumentals from the 16th and 17th centuries, covering England, France, Italy and Spain and the courts of kings, queens and the Medicis of Rome.
The programme opened with four songs by John Danyel who published one book of works set to the subtle and often witty words of his poet brother Samuel. Of these perhaps the most memorable was the final in the set, Eyes look no more, a pavan into which Danyel cleverly reworked Dowland’s big hit Flow My Tears.
Robert Jones was very much part of the Elizabethan scene and his lighthearted song Farewell dear love, beautifully sung here by Kirkby, was used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, albeit misquoting the original. His Lie downe poore heart, which opened the set of three, is rolled gold melancholy worthy of Dowland himself.
The great man, incidentally, did have a sense of humour, composing a piece Semper Dowland, semper dolens (Always Dowland, always doleful). For this recital Kirkby and Lindberg performed three of his songs – The lowest trees have tops, Burst forth my tears and the gorgeous John Donne setting, Sweete stay a while, why will you rise?
These were preceded by three lute tunes – the famous pavan and galliard dedicated to Captain Digorie Piper, whose ship was authorised to attack the Spanish but who multi-skilled as a notorious pirate – and a dazzling fantasia which featured some wrist-breaking runs.
After Dowland, Kirkby and Lindberg took us across the Channel with a beautiful elegy by Frenchman Francois Richard, who worked in the court of Louis XIII, followed by a set by two French composers, Antoine Boesset and Pierre Guedron, before Lindberg gave two contrasting solos by Louis XIII’s tutor Robert Ballard, including a lively rustic dance, a branle over droning bass strings.
The Spanish court also appreciated string music, in this case the flat-backed vihuela and with the works included in this programme you could hear the forerunners of the great Spanish guitar tradition.
Incidentally Lindberg started out on classical guitar, having been inspired by the music of the Beatles, before he turned to the Renaissance lute.
His newly restored 1596 instrument made the perfect complement to Kirkby’s famed pure timbre, which still sounds wonderful in those dying high notes. There is more vibrato than before but not too much, and she still “puts over” a song better than anyone else.
This was no more evident than in the Italian Tarquinio Merula’s mesmeric La Nanna, a lullaby in which Mary comforts the baby Jesus, telling him that what he fears now is nothing compared with what is to come in his life. The singer’s line soars and the embellishments build over a remarkable two-note semitone ground bass from the lute. This gloriously simple piece of 17th century minimalism rounded off a lovely recital from one of music’s international treasures.