Darkness Visible: Dowland and beyond

Taking the
music of the enigmatic and complex figure, John Dowland — lutenist,
actor, Elizabethan diplomat and suspected spy — as its starting point and
impetus, the programme explored some of the many transformations of Dowland,
revealing the performers’ innate understanding of the myriad ways in
which words and music ‘speak’ to their audiences.

Even the most simple and ‘straightforward’ of Dowland’s
own lute songs and airs are rarely without courtly sophistication and ironic
conceits, and while the opening song, ‘Away with these self-loving
lads’, relates a folky narrative reminiscent of pastoral comedy, the
alternations between music and declamation, forward momentum and dramatic
pause, reminded us of the theatrical context of many of the first performances
of these songs. ‘O sweet woods’ demonstrated the creamy lyricism of
Padmore’s tenor, floating and ethereal in the higher registers, firm and
centred, even warmly earthy in the lower regions. A rhythmic strength and
flexible control of tempo was apparent in ‘Come again, sweet love doth
now invite’.

Political intrigue — shrouded in a coded language of betrayals and reprisals
— underpins Dowland’s ‘If my complaints could passions
move’, as a melancholy lover’s abstract address to an absent Love,
masks a very specific entreaty to Elizabeth I on behalf of Dowland’s
patron, the Earl of Essex, for an end to exile and a re-admittance to the court
and to the Queen’s heart. Employing ornament both for exquisite melodic
effect and to highlight textual nuance, Padmore’s earnest entreaty,
‘Yet thou dost hope when I despair,/ And when I hope, thou mak’st
me hope in vain’, would surely have moved any regal sensibility; while an
unaffected lightness added a gentle poignancy to the avowal, ‘That I do
live, it I thy pow’r:/ That I desire it is thy worth’.

Britten drew upon this melody in his Lachrymae for solo viola;
after much fragmentation and development, the theme is sonorously sounded in
the piano bass in the final moments, establishing a destination for the
unfulfilled searching of the preceding bars. Widely regarded as one of the
foremost viola players in the world, Lawrence Power created an heightened
intimacy which recalled the contexts of the original Elizabethan performances.
With melancholy tenderness, Power conveyed the restless tension at the heart of
Britten’s lament, the veiled ending astonishing for its delicate

Returning to Dowland himself, Kenny’s and Padmore’s powerful
rendition of the mournful, solipsistic ‘In darkness let me dwell’,
brought the first part of this concert to a close; but no focus or intensity
were lost during the interval, as proceedings recommenced seamlessly, opening
with Thomas AdËs’ piano work, Darknesse visible, a
reinterpretation of Milton’s poem, played with supreme musicianship by
Andrew West. West appreciated both the architectural lucidity of AdËs’
eerie composition — creating exquisite spatial forms from the contrasting
registers and textures of the weaving contrapuntal lines — and its
troubled beauty, placing just the right emphasis on pungent dissonances and the
interplay of sound and silence, anger and restraint.

Hieronymus Kapsberger, a lutenist from Italy (despite his father’s
Germanic name), was typical of those foreign composers whose music found its
way into many Elizabethan collections, gathered while their owners were
undertaking a Grand Tour of the continent. Performing Kapsberger’s
‘Toccata, Passacaglia and Coloscione’, Elizabeth Kenny’s
controlled artistry and gentle but focused tone brought to mind Virginia Woolf:
‘Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and
evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a
butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with
bolts of iron’ – words which perfectly capture the combination of fragile
beauty and inner strength that characterised Kenny’s playing. She
relished the chromatic twists and piquancies, and the exotic
‘Turkish’ colours of the ‘Coloscione’.

Another less familiar name followed, Sigismondo d’India, whose
‘Lamento di Giasone’ is a larger-scale dramatic song, alternating
recitative and aria, accompanied by the rich, expansive tones of the theorbo.
Padmore and Kenny moved effortlessly between action and contemplation, enjoying
the madrigalian harmonies and word painting, the delayed cadences and the
contrasts between major and minor tonalities. The serene, pianissimo
stillness of ‘O diletto moral, com’in un punto/ Cangiasti insieme e
qualitate e stato!’ (‘O happiness of mortals, how in one brief
moment/ you have changed both yoru nature and condition!’), was
transformed to an uneasy swiftness, ‘Mori, morto al dolore,/ Mori, morto
mio core!’ (‘Die, killed by grief,/ die my dead heart!’).

Passing, by way of a sincere reading of Henry Lawes’ setting of Philip
Sidney’s ‘O sweet woods’ and ‘Tavolo: In quell gelato
core’ (‘In that icy heart’), to two songs by Frescobaldi,
‘Cosi mi disprezzate?’ (‘Thus you despise me?’) and
‘Se l’aura spira’) (‘If the soft winds blows’),
Padmore and Kenny demonstrated an uncanny empathy and the ability to let this
music speak for itself. Giulio Caccini’s ‘Amarilli mia bella’
brought the performance to an exquisite close. Padmore’s purity of tone,
elegance of phrasing and clarity of diction were astonishing: rarely, can words
and music have seemed more unified in sense and sentiment; seldom does the
actual performance of a song seem so integral to its meaning.

Claire Seymour

image_description=The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi (c. 1612/1620) [National Gallery of Art]
product_title=Darkness Visible: Dowland and beyond
product_by=Mark Padmore, tenor; Lawrence Power, viola; Elizabeth Kenny, lute and
theorbo; Andrew West, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Wednesday, 14th July 2010.
product_id=Above: The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi (c. 1612/1620) [National Gallery of Art]