Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford: "The Art of Melancholy: Songs By John Dowland"
English texts. Hyperion CDA 68007
The title of Iestyn Davies's new recital, The Art of Melancholy, hints at its success. Sadness, grief and isolation permeate the lute songs of John Dowland, and because of their intensity they are usually programmed between plenty of cheerful numbers. If the young British countertenor seems drawn to the darker side of song, it's his thoughtful approach and artful presentation that render his performances so deeply moving. Having already shown a real connection to introspective music in his recordings of eighteenth-century music, Davies explores a variety of melancholic expressive stances with rigorous intellectual understanding funneled through a delicate and pristine vocalism that goes to the core of each poem.
A fashionable seventeenth-century malady, melancholy inspired visual art, shaped poetry and charged the characters of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Jaques, but it was also a recognized and much-contemplated medical condition. Roger Savage's excellent liner essay puts the disease into context, musing on its manifestation in Dowland's own art and psyche.
In representing the art of melancholy, Davies never opts for a generically gloomy reading or a dark vocal hue. In the opening "Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears," he brings poignant colorings to the plunging musical line "But down, down, down, down I fall," fragility to "Down, and arise," letting the long high note swell gently and hopefully before crashing to earth with the concluding "I never shall." After a well-paced "Flow my tears," Davies and the excellent lutenist Thomas Dunford avoid a predictable angry conclusion, opting instead for an isolated, spiritually dead reading of the final line, "Happy they that in hell / Feel not the world's despite."
At first hearing, Davies's sound can register as astringent, but he wins over the listener in a word or two, and the ear quickly adjusts. In a lower key, "Come, heavy sleep" might have offered more options for vocal color, but these are tiny gripes, offset by Davies's superb technique. The long lines of "I saw my lady weep" and the gently hovering phrases of "Time stands still" are spun with utmost control.
Lute solos and two or three lighter songs brighten the pleasing gloom, as Davies finds a real narrative in the well-known "Come again, sweet love doth now invite." The easily swinging text of "Can she excuse my wrongs" never turns manic, and the concluding "Now, oh now I needs must part," interwoven with the instrumental Frog Galliard, is rendered with reserve and dignity.
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