John Dowland: Complete Lute Works, Volumes 1-5, Paul O’Dette, lute. Available from Harmonia Mundi (907160, 907161, 907162, 907163, 907164). Tel:310-478-1311, extension 119. $17.98 each, sold separately.
Although the music of the Renaissance came late to the British Isles, nowhere was the lute’s potential more fully realized than in the music of John Dowland (1563-1626). Dowland began his career as an apprentice in France at age 17. On his return to England, he graduated from both Oxford and Cambridge with bachelor degrees in music, later to earn a doctorate and serve as lutenist to Christian IV of Denmark.
More than 100 of Dowland’s works for solo lute have survived in various manuscripts. These have been carefully collected in a 5-disc series by Paul O’Dette, an American rightly regarded as one of the finest lutenists in the world. Each of the five volumes of John Dowland: Complete Lute Works shifts, often subtly, between the polarities of joy and melancholy that characterized Dowland’s music. Throughout his career, Dowland frequently revised the music of his earlier years, thus giving new life to his older pieces.
O’Dette gives listeners a chance to appreciate Dowland’s lute solos in their original form and in their later incarnations. O’Dette is both a virtuoso lutenist and a scholar whose expertise on Dowland results not only in a ‘historically correct’ performance, but also, more importantly, in a collection that opens a musical window on a lost era.
The digitally recorded collection begins with an untitled piece that introduces the listener to the charm and complexity of Dowland’s polyphonic lute music. The darker side of Dowland’s oeuvre is best represented in haunting performances of ‘Fortune My Foe’ and the graceful lament ‘Mr. Dowland’s Midnight,’ written three months before Dowland’s death. Covering the gamut of Dowland’s tempestuous moods, O’Dette’s recordings do not confine themselves merely to collecting the musical outpouring of Britain’s greatest lutenist; they capture Dowland’s humanity.
There are several unexpected pleasures awaiting aficionados of Renaissance music on these five discs. Included with the lute solos are four pieces played on the orpharion, a wire-strung instrument with an ethereal, silvery sound, which was invented in London in 1850 and was sometimes played in place of the lute.
John Dowland’s lute compositions represent the fullest musical flowering of the English Renaissance. Paul O’Dette is the medium through which Dowland’s genius reaches across the centuries to touch us in an increasingly impersonal era, and perhaps to remind us of the heights to which the human spirit can soar.