Friday, March 20, 2020

"Dowland" - a new disc of lute songs and lute pieces of John Dowland performed by Doron Schleifer-countertenor and Ori Harmelin-lute

“Dowland”, a recent recording by Doron Schleifer (countertenor) and Ori Harmelin (lute) presents a selection of lute songs and instrumental pieces of the great English Renaissance composer, virtuoso lutenist, and singer John Dowland (1562/3-1626), with just a few pieces by other composers. 


One could say that John Dowland is a composer renowned to have made a living out of being depressed. Feeding into his reputation as a great melancholic, he actually made a pun on his own name in a piece called “Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens” (Always Dowland, Always Doleful). He claimed his conversion to Catholicism had led to his not being offered a post at Elizabeth I’s Protestant court, that Britain had never appreciated him, leading him to spend much of his life looking for employment in France, Germany and Denmark. But, as to the mood reflected in much of his music, melancholy, at that time, was seen as the sign of a superior individual, of someone who was mature and capable of deep feeling and Dowland’s musical and creative brilliance give voice to what was considered an appropriate emotion.


In this disc, Schleifer and Harmelin offer a representative selection of Dowland’s songs, some throwing light on the various social circles in which Dowland moved and on the court of Elizabeth I, possibly voicing her mistreatment of courtiers in “If my complaints could passions move” and in the upbeat, lilting galliard (Elizabeth I’s favourite dance) of “Can she excuse my wrongs”. Hinting at court intrigues, the latter is associated with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who was later executed for treason. And how teasing is Schleifer and Harmelin’s stylish, nimble reading of the Almain “Say Love if ever thou didst find”, designed by Dowland to gain Elizabeth’s favour by flattering her as the “only queen of love and beauty”, their performance decidedly entertaining in its waggish play of single syllable sounds.


However, even in light of the Elizabethan penchant for dejection, the sombre John Dowland stands out as the high priest of melancholy, preoccupied with death and imbued with despair on all its levels. The artists’ rendering of “Sorrow stay” moves spontaneously, Schleifer’s plangent, bell-like timbre giving expression to the heart-rending, self-castigating text, with Harmelin engaging in the composer’s innovative idiomatic lute-writing, its harmonies and melodic motifs adding meaning. The disc includes a beguiling, fragile and intimate performance of “I saw my lady weep”, and the artists’ gently understated performance of Dowland’s signature song and most famous ayre “Flow my teares”, gives centre stage to the text’s wretchedness and despair. In Dowland’s time, sleep and death were understood to provide a longed-for release from earthly cares; the artists open each stanza of “Come heavy sleep” with the soothing serenity suggested by the tonality of G major, moving out of it to address the text’s more impassioned pleas, then to restore the sweetness of death (whether literal or in its erotic Elizabethan connotation) in the original mode.  As heard in the above songs, expression of human grief and a sense of hopelessness, together with optimism, the possibility of restoration and rebirth, are closely linked in art.and attitude of the time. But it is “In darkness let me dwell”, one of Dowland’s greatest masterpieces - a later, through-composed, declamatory song showing the influence of Italian monody - that takes the listener’s breath away, as Schleifer and Harmelin juxtapose the composer’s harmonic daring with prudent, unhurried timing in a spine-chilling performance; Schleifer gives a slight wavering of pitch to the word “hellish”, with the lute then abandoning the singer before the last word, an eerie, masterful effect on the part of Dowland..


“A shepherd in a shade” is certainly not melancholic, but it does offer a warning about love, referred to here as “a foolish thing”. As its double entendres merge with Dowland’s sudden chromatic shifts, the artists’ lightly-tripping, jaunty performance of the song is animated and whimsical.


Not only one of England's greatest song composers, John Dowland was also arguably its finest lute composer. His works are divided somewhat evenly between songs and solo lute compositions. In the course of the composer’s professional life, the lute, considered a "gentleman's instrument”, was continuously developing. Dowland would have started out on an instrument with only six courses but would have played a nine- or ten course lute in his maturity. With the tendency he had to revise his lute pieces, some can be found in as many as ten versions! As in his songs, interesting evidence of his connections with patrons and courtiers can be revealed by the dedications on many of the lute pieces. The King of Denmark’s Galliard, given a zesty, tastefully-ornamented reading by Ori Harmelin, is a reminder that Dowland was court lutenist to the Danish King Christian IV from 1598 to 1606. In the somewhat enigmatic “La Mia Barbara”, a pavin with divisions (which may or may not be those of Dowland) the artist takes the tempo at a relaxed pace to give space to a host of ornamental ideas. Harmelin also performs three of the composer’s 7 Fantasies (or Fancyes): merging expectation with the unexpected in the rich flow of ideas running through the toccata-like and Italianate Fancyes Nos. 5 and 6, Harmelin’s fertile imagination and melodic sense meet those of the composer in playing these small gems, reflecting Dowland’s expressive  personal, meditational world together with his range of compositional freedom. In the Forlorn Hope Fancy, also Italianate in style, one cannot but be captivated by the way the descending half-tone “tear” motif from “Flow My Teares” is woven seamlessly through the piece; Harmelin navigates its rich contrapuntal web and daring chromaticism with assurance, reminding the listener that Dowland was, indeed, a virtuosic player.


Other works on the disc appear in (son) Robert Dowland’s 1610 publication “A Musicall Banquet”. One of the many works inspired by- and based on Dowland’s “Lachrimae Antiquae” (instrumental pieces on “Flow my teares”) is “Mauritius’ Pavin” by Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse, who composed it “in honour of John Dowland, the English Orpheus” - its divisions possibly written by the honouree himself. Here, Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella” is given a spontaneous, fresh and flexed reading, with some splendid stylistic affects on the part of Schleifer. Also present is “Si le parler” by Pierre Guédron (c.1570-c.1620), one of the most renowned and influential composers of the early 17th century French court, an artist known for his writing of airs de cour (secular French pieces of that period) and for fuelling the phenomenal Parisian vogue for the genre. Schleifer addresses its agenda of courtly love (it also hints at undercurrents in Henri IV’s court) with pleasing French transparency and suaveness, the artists’ lilting performance evocative of the fact that dance was never far away from French court music. For the anonymous Spanish song “Vuestros ojos” (Your eyes contain I know not what of love), the artists adopt an urgency of pace as its speech rhythms cavort and break through bar lines, portraying the cruel message conveyed by the lady’s eyes.


Recorded in June 2017 for the SUISA label, the disc’s sound is uncluttered, endorsing the intimate nature of Dowland’s works. Doron Schleifer’s pure, easeful vocal timbre, his deep enquiry into texts and personal exegesis that steer well clear of the sameness of interpretation too often heard in performance of these songs, make for a rich listening experience. Playing on a 7-course Renaissance lute by Sebastian Núñez, Ori Harmelin’s delivery is poised, profound and intelligent, his polished, attentive performance served by consummate technical skill and integrated with invention and a diversity of ideas. The two Israeli-born artists, today residing in Basel and both members of the Profeti della Quinta ensemble, share their own “personal Dowland” (Harmelin's words) with exemplary teamwork. 


Doron Schleifer, Ori Harmelin (photo:Elam Rotem)


Saturday, March 7, 2020

"Twilight People" - pianist Tamar Halperin and countertenor Andreas Scholl's recent recording of atmospheric songs of the 20th and 21st centuries, including folk song settings

“Twilight People”, a disc recorded by countertenor Andreas Scholl and pianist Tamar Halperin, is a collection of songs carefully selected by the artists - songs of composers from Austria, England, America, of one born in Egypt and one in Israel, as well as settings of folk songs. 


The disc features three songs from Alban Berg’s “Jugendlieder” (1901-1908), a substantial collection written when Berg was studying with Arnold Schoenberg and that traces the young composer's musical transition from the late Romantic love song to a more modern idiom. Performing Berg’s setting of the Heinrich Heine poem Vielgeliebte schöne Frau” (Much-loved Beautiful Woman), Halperin and Scholl, with absolutely no affectation, evoke its mournful, bleak yet lush autumnal setting, with its pedal point in the bass moving down a half tone for one mystifying, staggering  beat, suddenly shedding light on the song’s chilling message. In “Ferne Lieder” (Distant Songs) to words of Friedrich Rückert, each mellifluous gesture is appraised by the artists, their reading of it emerging in lilting luxuriance and delicate flexing, endorsing Berg’s musical language that sees fit here to defy bar lines and conventional modulation,  Also lavish and tranquil in its melding of nature and the milieu of love is “Wo der Goldregen steht” (Where the Laburnum Stands), as Halperin and Scholl infuse it with a sense of spontaneity and well-being. 


Arrangements of folk songs form a major part of the disc. Benjamin Britten wrote 61 folk-song arrangements, many of them displaying extraordinarily imaginative piano accompaniments. His settings comprise songs of the British Isles, but also of some French melodies.  Halperin and Scholl’s performance of three settings was gently crestfallen and wistful: “The Salley Gardens”, an Irish tune with words by W.B. Yeats (a reconstruction of ‘an old song’ arranged in the early 1940s, as Yeats described it), with a deep sense of longing woven into its harmonies and a touch of word painting; the gloomy soundscape of “Greensleeves”, evoked by the piano's low strumming left hand (sounding very distant from the countertenor range) and its somewhat disturbing insistent single right hand note (mostly the 5th of the scale); and “The Ash Grove”, Britten’s first setting of a traditional Welsh tune, its opening accompaniment positive, light and buoyant, with the right-hand melody and its accompanying harmonies then moving away from the vocal line, as though distracted and  haunted by the poet's grief at  his beloved's death, to be followed by the return of a simpler harmonic language for the final two lines, restoring the song’s earlier feeling of reassurance. The richly flowing piano part of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “In the Spring” (My love is the maid), a Dorset folk-song as transcribed (in local dialect) by William Barnes, integrates the text’s profuse description of nature with the poet’s almost delirious love of a young woman;  Vaughan Williams adds his own comment in the form of a shadowy moment of reticence towards the end of the song. 


Aaron Copland’s two collections of Old American Songs (1950,1952), indeed, fine specimens of folk-song arrangements, are exquisitely presented on the disc. “The Little Horses” swings between the soothing caressing lullaby, accompanied by reposeful, seemingly random 5ths and sixths in the piano's upper register, and the expression of sheer childlike delight as inspired by the energetic rhythm of a trotting horse. “At the River”, a Methodist hymn by the Reverend Robert Lowry, dated 1865, begins pensively, gathering strength and spiritual conviction with calm simplicity as the accompaniment seems to evoke the steps of pilgrims making their way to the river.


Three songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams feature on the disc. From “The House of Life”, an early collection based on sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Silent Noon”, sensuous, rhapsodic and cushioned in opulent harmonies, interlinks passion and nature. On his score of “The Twilight People” (1925), from which this disc takes its title, the composer writes that this setting of Seamus O’Sullivan’s poem (1905) may be sung either unaccompanied (suggesting its folksong-type character) or with the composer’s piano accompaniment. Here, the artists choose to do both, initially with Scholl alone expounding its unique, meandering, at times, unpredictable melodic contour with alluring timbral beauty, then to repeat the song, this time joined by Halperin, who adds its sparse, mysterious high-register accompaniment. Both versions leave the listener deep in thought and ensconced in its otherworldly aura. From “Four Last Songs” (1958), written two years before Vaughan Williams’ death, his settings of poems of his wife and muse Ursula, a highly respected British poet and novelist, we hear “Tired”. Composed within one day, it is the only example of a work in which the composer wrote music with himself as the direct subject. The artists give tender expression to this love song, sensitively weaving into it the poet’s recollections as well as the sense of peaceful contentment when lying near one’s beloved, its gently rocking piano accompaniment soothing but also offering some subtle ambiguity as to interesting touch.


The disc includes two contemporary works, opening with “The Rest”, from “wiping ceramic tiles”, a 5-part song cycle for countertenor and piano by Israeli-born American composer/librettist/producer Ari Frankel (b.1960).  Halperin and Scholl give expression to its almost luminous soundscape, with Scholl’s superb control of the largely static vocal line set against Halperin’s fragile, unhurried broken chords of poised single notes, the piece’s minor mode slowly becoming invaded by major associations, also a smattering of thought-provoking dissonances, to culminate in direct major-minor confrontation commenting on “I HOPE TO KNOW AND FEEL SAFE ONE DAY.” Twilight People ends with “Beauty is Life”, by London-based Australian oud player Joseph Tawadros (b. Egypt, 1983), who joins Halperin and Scholl in performance of the work. A breathing, palpable kaleidoscope of east meeting west, of set texts dovetailing with improvisation, of three outstanding artists who, taking their cue from the initial ideas expounded by the oud, join to produce a work of superb, instinctive, natural musicianship and gripping emotion.


“Twilight People”, recorded in 2019 for the MODERN Recordings label, is unique in atmosphere, moving beyond everyday experience into the somewhat inexplicable (at times, disturbing) regions of the human psyche, as plumbed by the poets represented here. Arranged in strategic order, the pieces, whether addressing man within the powerful forces of nature, recalling love or memories - frequently all - pass through the emotional prism of the artists, resulting in performance that mixes the objective with the subjective, in performance that is beguiling, rich in gestures, fine in detail, of rare sensitivity and superb teamwork. Tamar Halperin and Andreas Scholl invite the listener to take flight into the timeless depths of his own soul.