February 13, 2014 6:00 pm

John Dowland: In Darkness, Kings Place, London – review

The Elizabethan composer’s world was brought movingly to life

Elvis Costello and Sting, in his album Songs from the Labyrinth, have won John Dowland a bigger audience than he ever had in his lifetime. But, for all the popularity of their modern versions of his songs, an evening devoted to the Elizabethan composer’s music probably still looks rather a morbid prospect for most tastes.

Thoughtful planning is needed and for the past six months or so Ian Bostridge has been performing a well-judged programme of Dowland’s music in the company of lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and Fretwork, a consort of viols. How they managed in some of the larger venues is difficult to imagine, but in Kings Place they found a sympathetic environment. Sleek and modern, it hardly has the atmosphere of a Tudor hall on a convivial evening after the roast swan has been devoured, but the warm, enveloping acoustic made Dowland feel completely at home.

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Bostridge’s tenor is generously large and limpid for this music. It is easy to imagine how disappointing an Elizabethan singer would sound to us today – most likely a small, shallow voice, and a way of singing that focused simply on the words – but Bostridge has to work hard to redress the balance. Sometimes, he overemphasised the words in an attempt to make sure they were audible. In a few songs, including “I Saw My Lady Weep”, he was too indulgent, lavishing them with care to the point where the overall shape and meaning were lost. But, by and large, there was much beautiful and deeply felt singing.

Instrumental numbers were interspersed throughout the programme to provide variety. Kenny gave a highly skilled performance of “Forlorn Hope Fancy”, though it was sensible to keep the lute solos to just one in this hall. Fretwork played the celebrated seven Lachrimae pavans, which sounded wonderfully rich and complex, like Brahms’s string sextets.

They also added the instrumental versions that Dowland made of some of his songs, which allowed Bostridge sometimes to sing with the accompaniment of the five viols, bringing extra warmth and fullness of texture. While Fretwork were playing, he even sat looking suitably morose. One way or another, the melancholy world of John Dowland was brought movingly to life.



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